Mea Culpa: braving the anti-aircraft fire of spelling mistakes

A spelling test, a problem of telling the time, and an excess of journalese in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 28 October 2016 13:20
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Japanese night raiders are greeted with a flak of anti-aircraft fire by the Marine defenders of Yontan airfield, on Okinawa, 1945
Japanese night raiders are greeted with a flak of anti-aircraft fire by the Marine defenders of Yontan airfield, on Okinawa, 1945

Flack is old-fashioned slang for a publicity agent, “of unknown origin” according to the Oxford Dictionary. Flak, on the other hand, means anti-aircraft fire, and is a German abbreviation of Fliegerabwehrkanone, or aviator-defence gun.

Nobody uses the first any more, except as a misspelling of the second, as we did on Sunday, in our round-up of the US comedy shows’ responses to the third presidential debate: “Primarily – as many have come to expect – Donald Trump received the majority of flack, mainly in thanks to his comments about seemingly not accepting the election result if he doesn’t win.”

Actually, spelling flak wrongly was the least of that sentence’s problems. We did not need “primarily” as well as “the majority of”. I’m not sure if “in thanks” is an American usage, but I haven’t heard it in Britain. By the time we get to “seemingly” it is time to rewrite the whole thing: “As many have come to expect, Donald Trump received most of the flak, mainly thanks to his refusal to say he would accept the election result if he didn’t win.”

Noon or midnight? We said last Friday that an “internet outage ... began shortly after 12pm BST”. Richard Harvey wrote to say that “outage” is a ghastly word and that he was never sure what “12pm” is supposed to mean.

I don’t agree about outage. It is a short, unambiguous word and I can’t think of a better noun to describe a time when a website or server is not working. But 12pm is a horror. There is a convention that 12am is midnight and 12pm is noon. This seems neat, because it means that 12.00pm, 12.01pm, 12.02pm and so on are all “pm”.

But the National Physical Laboratory rightly points out that it is confusing, and says that, “given this ambiguity, the terms 12am and 12pm should be avoided”. We should have said “12 noon BST”.

In the middle: Fifteen headlines used “amid” this week, so it is unfair to light on just two examples. It can be a useful piece of journalese, especially if, for legal reasons, we want to avoid defaming someone by suggesting cause and effect. But “UK deploys hundreds of troops and aircraft to eastern Europe amid Russia tensions” on Thursday had no such excuse. “... as Russia tensions rise” would have been fine.

Best of the crop, though, was this, also on Thursday: “O2 gets cold feet over flotation plans as Misys pulls the plug amid sinking market.” A company’s feet become colder as the water drains out, but, before it drains completely, a market sinks, presumably stalls and all. As my predecessor Guy Keleny used to say, I’d like to see the diagram illustrating that one.

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