Mea Culpa: Another fine mess we’ve gotten into

A Middle English revival, some pettifogging pedantry and a drug-addled cliché in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 30 June 2017 14:58
 Laurel and Hardy in The Flying Deuces, 1939
Laurel and Hardy in The Flying Deuces, 1939

I like “gotten”. It is a past participle of “get” that died out in British English some time after we exported it to the New World. Now the New World is exporting it back. We used it five times last week, although three of those were when we were quoting someone. Another was an Associated Press feature. Given that more than half our readers are in the US, we no longer rewrite American copy into British English.

The fifth instance, however, prompted Anthony Slack to write in. In an editorial on Monday we said of Theresa May: “She, as she recently said to her MPs, had gotten us in this mess and she was the best person to get us out of it.”

Despite my wish to restore this Middle English usage, I do think this is distracting. Not just because it was in an editorial, which ought to have a more formal tone, but because we were paraphrasing what the Prime Minister said at the 1922 Committee after the election.

Journalists were told what she said by a Conservative MP who came out of the meeting, and I still have my note of what he said she said: “I got us into this mess and I’m going to get us out of it.” He did say he couldn’t vouch for her exact words, and it did sound like a reference to Laurel and Hardy’s catchphrase (which was actually “here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”), but I am as sure as I can be that she did not say “gotten”.

Pettifoggery refuted: Another reader, Paul Edwards, wrote to point out that we had used “refute” to mean “reject”, but added that this is “so common now that there is nothing to be done about it”. This is defeatist talk. That example has been changed, although no doubt other instances will slip through the net. Mr Edwards is right that in the long run the idea that refute should only mean disprove will die out. And so it should. It is a bit of pettifogging pedantry, because the word comes from the Latin refutare, which means repel or rebut. So those who complain about the “misuse” of refute are, as often happens, complaining that the word is being used in its original sense.

In the medium term, however, I think my rule applies. If there are a lot of our readers who think it is wrong to use refute to mean reject or rebut rather than “prove something to be false”, we should avoid distracting them. The supposed difference between refute and reject may be pedantic, but it is as well to know about it.

High-cliché mark: Along with, I suspect, the vast majority of our readers, I have never read Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Something to do with taking a lot of drugs, apparently. Like the vast majority of our readers, however, I have seen the phrase “fear and loathing” in headlines. Probably about as many times as to make up the 50,000 words of the novel. This week it was: “Fear and loathing: Yemeni-Americans label Trump’s unblocked travel ban ‘petrifying’.”

Here’s a quotation from the book: “With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Let us hope this is it.

X marks the spot: In that article about Yemeni-Americans fears about President Trump’s travel ban, we used the word “connexions”. This is an older spelling than connections, according to the Oxford Dictionary, from the Latin connexio. Another usage, like gotten, that I think we should use more.

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