Mea Culpa: agnostic – incapable of believing in Boris

Questions of style and usage in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Friday 14 June 2019 13:53
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French newspaper ‘Liberation’ certainly didn’t believe in an all-powerful being up in the sky back in June 2016
French newspaper ‘Liberation’ certainly didn’t believe in an all-powerful being up in the sky back in June 2016

In an editorial on Sunday, we said that the EU was “agnostic about who the British premier is”. A reader objected that this implied that our European partners could not be sure about the existence of such an implausible deity.

This appeal was rejected by reference to the Oxford dictionary, which said that, in a non-religious context, agnostic means “having a doubtful or non-committal attitude towards something”.

I think the better objection might be that to suggest the leaders of other European countries have no view about the prospect of Boris Johnson as British prime minister is plainly unbelievable.

A bit previous: We used “prior to” eight times this week, according to a computer search. In some cases we were quoting someone, but in others we were using an ugly and unnecessary synonym for “before” for no good reason. In a republished obituary of Anne Scott-James, for example, we said of Osbert Lancaster, her third husband, that his health deteriorated, “and for the six years prior to his death he became less and less capable of undertaking the social life that he had so valued”.

It seems trivial, I know, but “before” is better and yes it does matter.

Paranormal: In our review of the Strokes at the All Points East music festival in Victoria Park, London, we said the sound quality was so poor the audience began to boo. “Frontman Julian Casablancas, dressed in a half-unbuttoned black silk shirt, silver necklaces adorning his exposed chest, is preternaturally unfazed – but even he seems momentarily rattled.”

I know that preternatural is basically a Latin word meaning “beyond what is natural”, but I don’t think we need it. It is not a word anyone but the most affected use in conversation – most people might say “unnaturally” or “abnormally” unfazed.

Anyway, his calm wasn’t that out of the ordinary, as later in the same sentence he turned out to be “rattled”.

Weather report: In the life cycle of the cliche, the phrase “perfect storm” has been so drained of meaning that it now means two bad things happening at once. In an article about robots taking jobs, we said that, for the food and drink companies in Lincolnshire, “there’s a perfect storm of tightening profit margins caused by the growth of discount retailers and now a US-China trade spat that’s pushing up the cost of raw materials”.

Time for a fresh turn of phrase.

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