Mea Culpa: a prudent resistance from the people of Hong Kong

John Rentoul reviews questions of the use of English in last week’s Independent

Saturday 21 August 2021 21:30
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<p>Alexandra Wong, known as Grandma Wong, is taken away by police at a protest last month to mark the 24th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain</p>

Alexandra Wong, known as Grandma Wong, is taken away by police at a protest last month to mark the 24th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain

We wrote about the latest crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong, saying that “observers think Hong Kong’s civil society might try to use more discrete ways to continue its resistance”. Philip Nalpanis wrote to remind us that the word meaning prudent and unobtrusive is by convention spelt “discreet”, whereas “discrete” is used to mean “separate”.

It is in fact the same word, from the Latin discretus, “separate”, in the sense of “able to be told apart”, hence applied to someone who is “discerning”, knowing the difference between behaving well and badly. The spelling rule is arbitrary, but we might as well know it.

I would also question the use of the phrase “civil society”, which is a fashionable way of saying groups that are independent of the authorities. I think, given that we can be confident that the majority in Hong Kong want to defend their civil rights, we could just have said “the people of Hong Kong”.

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