Mea Culpa: can a natural feature be a trademark?

Patented rocks, words with opposite meanings and other style glitches in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 26 August 2016 13:06 BST
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Distinctive is an appropriate word to describe Utah’s sandstone
Distinctive is an appropriate word to describe Utah’s sandstone

In a travel feature on Monday about Utah’s national parks we mentioned “slickrock (the state’s trademark smooth, weathered sandstone)”. Trademark is often used as a supposedly more interesting way of saying “distinctive” or “typical”, but it is a poor metaphor to use for natural geography.

Approval or disapproval: Sanction is an odd word, with two nearly opposite meanings. It can mean to approve of something, or to penalise someone for disobeying a rule or law. It was the first meaning that we were aiming for in our review on Monday of Britain’s performance at the Rio Olympics, which said Justin Rose’s gold medal in golf was particularly significant: “Rose described it as his greatest victory, powerful sanction from the 2014 US Open champion.”

I stumbled over it. Something neutral such as “powerful words from the champion” would have been better, and would not have made me check: it was the 2013 US Open that Rose won.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Also on Monday, we reinvented a word that was used in the 17th century. We wrote about Nicolas Sarkozy’s “perceived extravagancy”. Thanks to Bernard Theobald for pointing it out, and for telling me that the Oxford English Dictionary records its use in the 1600s. We often invent new words or reinvent old ones by adding standard but unconventional endings to them, such as normalcy rather than normality. Anyway, these days it is usually “extravagance”.

Far-sighted country: My predecessor Guy Keleny used to inveigh against the use of “sees” in headlines, but we still have inanimate objects and sometimes whole nations “seeing” the news unfold. On Thursday, we said: “Sweden sees record numbers of asylum seekers withdraw applications and leave.” It would have been just as easy to say, “Record numbers of asylum seekers withdraw applications and leave Sweden,” given that there was no special reason why the country should go first. Indeed, on the principle that the most important words go first, we could have had: “Asylum seekers withdraw applications and leave Sweden in record numbers.”

Thermometers on the march: “It is set to be dry for Sunday’s race with unseasonably warm temperatures sweeping through the Ardennes,” we said in a preview on Thursday of the Belgian Grand Prix. When it is very hot or very cold, journalism tends to suffer from outbreaks of “temperatures” and “weather conditions”. A temperature is a measurement and it can rise or fall: this sentence conjured up a vision of an army of thermometers marching through the woods. We meant it is likely to be unusually hot, and I’m not sure if “sweeping through the Ardennes” was meant to be a reference to the Second World War, but we should probably have done without it.

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