Mea Culpa: The germ of a pedantic idea

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

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Saturday 21 March 2020 22:24
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A certain writer got himself in a pickle about scientific matters
A certain writer got himself in a pickle about scientific matters

Let me start by telling myself off. I wrote last week about why Prime Minister’s Questions was going ahead in what Adam Boulton of Sky News called “the pool of germs that is the House of Commons”, and commented: “A virus isn’t a germ but we know what he meant.”

Usually, pedantry is a higher calling and an admirable quality, but on this occasion I was just making a nuisance of myself. The Oxford dictionary defines a germ as “a microorganism, especially one which causes disease”. A virus is not an organism; it is not quite a living thing, although it is able to use living things to make copies of itself.

But this is a distinction without a difference, and Joe Morison rightly pointed out that the first usage example given by the Shorter Oxford is: “I picked up this wretched germ somehow – it’s a virus pneumonia.”

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