Errors & Omissions: A complex tale of the protégé, the prodigy and the progeny

Not quite all the right words in the right order in this week's Independent

Guy Keleny
Saturday 05 March 2016 10:01
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“Mr Infantino, a former prodigy of the suspended Uefa president Michel Platini under whom he served as general secretary in European football’s headquarters…” That was from last Saturday’s story about the election of the new president of Fifa (above).

I am grateful to Geoff Chandler for pointing it out. That prodigy should be protégé. The Latin word prodigium means an omen, a marvel or a monster. A good deal of that meaning survives in the English adjective “prodigious”. But the English noun “prodigy” has become almost fossilised: it nearly always means a child who displays some amazing talent.

Protégé (feminine: protégée) is a French word, meaning a protected person. In English usage it means a person whose career is helped on its way by the protection and influence of a powerful patron.

The two words are easily confused, since they both summon up a picture of a youngster making their way in the world. The same person may very well be both a protégé and a prodigy – but they are not the same thing. And in the background, adding to the general noise and confusion, is another similar-sounding word often applied to children: “progeny”, meaning offspring or descendants.

µ This is from the introductory blurb to a feature article published on Tuesday: “An Anglo-French production about Louis XIV’s Versailles has proved a big – and relevant – hit in France.” Relevant? Relevant to what, the puzzled reader wants to know. The answer emerges from reading the article: relevant to things that concern people today. There is a better word for that than the overused “relevant”. It is “topical”.

µ This column has always stoutly defended the freedom to end a clause or a sentence with a preposition, condemning as sterile pedantry the “rule” that you mustn’t. What then becomes of some fine lines in Shakespeare, such as Juliet’s reaction to the idea of marriage: “It is an honour that I dream not of”?

However, though it may not always be wrong to end with a preposition, it is not always right either. This is from a news story published on Tuesday: “It was a role which Rylance immersed himself in – but in terms of a movie career it wasn’t the launch of anything.” You can’t deny that “a role in which Rylance immersed himself” would have sounded much better.

µ “Demise” is an annoying word that should be avoided whenever possible. A news headline on Tuesday said: “How a zealous gardener and his Leylandii trimmings sowed seeds of thieves’ demise”.

Here “demise” is supposed to mean “downfall”. But it doesn’t. It started life in the 16th century meaning the legal transfer of property or sovereignty, which is sometimes occasioned by a death. Then in the 18th century it begins to be used as a polite word for the death itself – possibly as a result of a confusion with “decease”. Nowadays it does duty for any sort of defeat or unwelcome ending. Let’s put a stop to it.

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