words

Ruin
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"Ruined - for slapping son" said the Daily Mail's banner headline. It was about a teacher whose 12-year-old son had gone to the police after a clip on the ear; the father was arrested, barred from his own home, accused by the social services of not being loving enough, and was too upset to go back to work. The reporter didn't use it, but the editor must have felt that this was just the right word for the occasion.

It certainly fooled me. My immediate thought, before reading the story, was that the man had been bankrupted. Ruined is more likely to be found in the business pages. We rather enjoy reading about fallen tycoons, but this Mail headline was designed to make us angry.

Roughly speaking, there are only five things that can be ruined: buildings, finances, picnics, puddings and reputations. The first was the original meaning, ruina, being the Latin for a serious fall. The next three are still much in use, and, though provoking in their various ways, are not the sort of thing to outrage readers of the Mail.

The fifth is the tear-jerker. It takes us back to an age both more conventional and more romantic than ours, when, for example, lovely women who stooped to folly were banned from society and never held up their heads again. The Mail's headline revives those echoes, but it doesn't mean that either: it means "utterly demoralised", which is even more archaic. Today, most people in such a situation would more probably say their lives were "wrecked" or, perhaps, "shattered", a word the reporter did use here.

A mistake by the Mail then? Not necessarily. Popular newspapers tend to devalue words, using them too often for trivial purposes. This does the opposite; and anything that restores a bit of grandeur to our common vocabulary should be welcomed.

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