Mea Culpa: a ship on rails? Boris Johnson’s transport revolution

John Rentoul on questions of style and use of language in last week’s Independent

Saturday 20 November 2021 21:30
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<p>The prime minister launches a thousand train-based metaphors </p>

The prime minister launches a thousand train-based metaphors

The government’s integrated rail plan was announced last week, which meant a big week for railway metaphors. The worst offender was an editorial headlined: “Johnson’s flagship project has hit the buffers.” Hitting the buffers was bad enough, but a flagship would hit those tyres they hang over the edges of docks to stop the boats scraping their hulls. Not just a clanging cliche but a mixed metaphor as well.

Badly trained dumpling: We had a fine misspelling in a report on British women in Syrian detention camps who are at risk of losing their citizenship and who may be separated from their children: “To separate them would be to inflict wonton trauma on children who have been through vast amounts of harm.”

We were quoting Maya Foa of Reprieve, the human rights organisation, but the trouble with “wanton” is that it is an unusual word, and so we confused it with a Chinese dumpling. It is a good word, from the Middle English wantowen, “rebellious, lacking discipline”, from wan-, “badly”, and the Old English togen, “trained” (related to team and tow). We should use it more often, and then we would be less likely to spell it wrongly.

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