Errors & Omissions: A plural question that Disney answers better than Tolkien

Guy Keleny
Saturday 20 August 2011 00:00

The television listings in last week's Information section carried a paragraph that began: "Dwarfs are the new Gypsies, it seems, the minority that is set to become TV flavour of the season." The heading above said: "Seven Dwarves". Dwarfs or Dwarves? English usage is changing, and here is why.

In a foreword to The Hobbit, published in 1937, J R R Tolkien writes: "In English, the only correct plural of 'dwarf' is 'dwarfs' and the adjective is 'dwarfish'. In this story 'dwarves' and 'dwarvish' are used, but only when speaking of the ancient people to whom Thorin Oakenshield and his companions belonged."

In appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives a further explanation: "But in the Third Age something of their old character and power is still glimpsed... these are the descendants of the Naugrim of the Elder Days... in whose hands still lives the skill in work of stone that none have surpassed. It is to mark this that I have ventured to use the form 'dwarves', and remove them a little, perhaps, from the sillier tales of these latter days."

So, "dwarves" was coined by Tolkien about 80 years ago to give his dwarves a dignity that dwarfs could hardly attain. So successful have his stories been that "dwarves" seems to be superseding "dwarfs" as the regular plural of "dwarf". Whether "dwarvish" will oust the insulting word "dwarfish" is doubtful.

Meanwhile, let us at least be consistent and not mix dwarves and dwarfs in the same paragraph. And let us also remember that the title of the 1938 Disney movie is and remains Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Exclude me in: What is the opposite of "exclusive"? Cheap; open to the public; common as muck; or merely "inclusive"? The question is provoked by this sentence, from a news story published on Wednesday: "The friend said Mrs De La Haye had called the police following the incident at the couple's exclusive beachfront apartment." "Exclusive" is commonly used to impart an air of glamour to places that are, in truth, merely expensive. It hardly ever conveys any actual information that makes any sense.

An "exclusive" shop, for instance, actually excludes nobody; but it is frequented only by people who can afford the goods it sells. That is true also of the corner shop at the bottom of our street. Even dafter is the idea of an "exclusive apartment". Presumably the exclusion covers anybody not invited in by the householder. Just like my house, then.

Military disasters: It has been a bad week for military hardware. A news story on Monday began thus: "The Syrian regime deployed gunboats against its own people yesterday in the Mediterranean port of Latakia. While gunboats raked the city's densely populated beachfront with machine-gun fire...."

So far, so good, but the headline said: "Gunships up the ante in Syrian regime's assault on its people." A gunboat is what you would expect – a boat armed with guns; that was what the Syrians were using. But a gunship, confusingly, is an aircraft equipped for ground-attack missions

Then on Thursday we ran an article recalling the end of the Soviet Union. One of the accompanying picture captions said: "A Soviet Army tank in Moscow." The picture plainly showed some kind of infantry fighting vehicle.

There is no point in attempting an exhaustive definition here, but if the vehicle in question has tracks, not wheels, and has a turret on top, about half-way along the hull, with a big gun sticking out, then you are probably safe to call it a tank. Otherwise call it an armoured vehicle, and you won't be wrong.

Mixed metaphor of the week: "The sky-high price has sparked a spate of museum burglaries," said a news story on Monday, about the trade in rhino horn. "Spark" has become a journalese synonym for "cause" or "provoke". A spate is a sudden flood of water. You cannot spark a spate.

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