Errors & Omissions: If you go around begging, expect questions to be raised


Guy Keleny
Saturday 10 March 2012 01:00 GMT

Tuesday's Trending page reported that Scarlett Johansson is to act the part of Janet Leigh, star of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho – "which beggars the question: is there a more intimidating role to take on than that of another celebrated actor?".

There are two layers of error here. First, the writer has confused "beggar belief" with "beg the question". So, which ought it to be? In fact, neither.

First, the story is obviously nothing to do with beggaring belief. The use of "beggar" as a verb dates back to the 16th century. To beggar someone is to reduce them to the status of a beggar, by exhausting their resources. Hence, the slightly odd, but perfectly respectable expression "beggar belief". An idea "beggars belief" if it is so unlikely or outlandish that it exhausts our capacity to believe it.

So, what about "beg the question"? This is probably the most widely misused expression in the language. I don't propose to explain what it means. People with degrees in philosophy have no trouble understanding it. The rest of us find it virtually ungraspable. There are only two things you need to know about "beg the question". The first is that it is not the same as "raise the question" – which is the expression the writer of the Johansson item should have used. The second is this: don't write "beg the question" – ever.

Silent struggle: Here is another common misfire of meaning, from a news story published on Thursday, about Lord Coe and Olympic ticket sales: "There are concerns that the reason for his reticence to release the information is..."

There are two words that sound a bit the same and mean a bit the same. "Reticent" (from the Latin tacere, to remain silent) means disinclined to speak. "Reluctant" (from the Latin luctari, to struggle) means disinclined to do something; it could be anything.

So you could say that Lord Coe is reluctant to release the information, or you could convey the same information by saying that he is simply reticent. But don't mix them up: "reticent to" makes no sense.

Under your hat: On Tuesday, we published a spread of photographs from the Chinese National People's Congress: the President and Prime Minister shaking hands, delegates in ethnic dress, and so on – and one very strange picture indeed.

It showed a line of women in green uniforms. They had those hats with a brim turned down in front and up behind which are worn by women in uniformed services across the world. But here is the odd bit: they were wearing the hats upside down. Indeed, one of their number was depicted in the act of placing a hat, crown downwards, on the head of one of her colleagues.

What drill evolution requires upside-down hats? The caption offered no enlightenment. Somebody either didn't notice or assumed you were too dim to care. They were not alone. The Washington Post website offers a similar picture. The caption: "Chinese paramilitary police, wearing their hats upside down, undergo a drill..." No explanation.

Presumably it's about practising drill without the hats falling off. But we should be told. It's difficult not to see racial bigotry here. If these people were British, say, or American or French, the hat mystery would be explained. But they're Chinese, so you can't expect anything they do to make sense.

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