Mea Culpa: a roll of the dice down the chute

Obsolete metaphors, married priests and unnecessary controversy in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Friday 06 January 2017 14:28
Olivia Williams in a scene from 'The Halycon'
Olivia Williams in a scene from 'The Halycon'

“It’s made me very happy and I can wish that for someone else, but it’s a crap-chute.” Thanks to Chris King for pointing this out from our interview with Olivia Williams, talking about show business.

The phrase causes difficulty not least because the game is called craps. According to the Oxford Dictionary it is “a gambling game played with two dice, chiefly in North America”. It dates it to the “early 19th century” and guesses at the origin: “perhaps from crab or crab’s eyes, denoting the lowest throw (two ones) at dice”.

A shoot is a game, so it should be a craps-shoot, but street-gamblers are not going to be so precise in their pronunciation, so it is usually written as one word, crapshoot, “because we can just say the extra ‘s’ was dropped in compounding”, as one lexicographer puts it.

A quick Google confirms that the confusion between shoot and chute is common. That’s the trouble with using old metaphors when everyone has forgotten the original reference.

Pope still Catholic: A reader wrote to draw attention to this, in an article about Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, renouncing atheism: “Earlier this year, Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook about meeting Pope Francis with his wife, Priscilla Chan.”

Yes, it is not the ideal sentence order, but I do not think any reader would take from it that the Pope had followed St Peter’s example and taken a wife. If we were being needlessly fastidious we could have rewritten it to say something like, “Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook about the time he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, met Pope Francis.” But if we have time for rewrites, there are plenty of sentences more worthy of attention than this.

Tautological newsworthiness: We could, for example, try to eliminate the word “controversial” from our journalism. As my colleague Zak Thomas points out, “most news stories contain some element of controversy as that is often what makes them newsworthy”.

Take just one day this week. On Wednesday our report of the conviction of Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier, for manslaughter said “the controversial trial has dragged on for months…” From America we reported: “Republicans have dropped controversial plans to scrap an independent ethics office after widespread criticism from the public and questions from President-elect Donald Trump.” And from Dubai we put this sub-headline on an interview with Mark Clattenburg: “The controversial official, who was named world referee of the year last week, has backed his colleagues.”

As Zak says: “The reader can usually work out if something is controversial or not. We don’t need to patronise them by telling them what to think.”

Riding for a fall: We repeated a familiar confusion this week, in an article about fashion. “Laura Kim took the reigns at Oscar de la Renta along with fellow creative director Fernando Garcia.” It’s “reins”, a metaphor from horse riding. It is nothing to do with monarchies. Anyway, kings and queens don’t usually have more than one reign, and they don’t “take” them.

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