Mea Culpa: Deoxyribonucleic acid on the Banned List

Questions of style and usage in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Friday 19 April 2019 15:24
DNA drama: ‘According to the lab report, the father of your baby is Great Britain’
DNA drama: ‘According to the lab report, the father of your baby is Great Britain’

We wrote of “the national DNA” in a comment article about Nigel Farage’s return from the wilderness, saying that it includes “the presumption … of denying extremists parliamentary seats”. Julian Self wrote to draw my attention to this flagrant breach of my Banned List, the DNA metaphor being one of its prohibited cliches.

For some trait to be “in someone’s DNA” is bad enough, but in a nation’s DNA is too much.

Sorry to report that the same article also included this description of Farage’s imagined feelings on the night of the 2016 referendum: “No victory in modern politics can have felt more pyrrhic.” What we meant was that it was, for the Ukip leader, a hollow victory, because it appeared to condemn him to obscurity. (Indeed, there were commentators who said before the referendum that in five years’ time we will have forgotten who Nigel Farage was. How wrong I turned out to be.)

Anyway, the original pyrrhic victory, won by Pyrrhus, the Greek general, against the Roman republic in 279BC, was a victory won at too great a cost. “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined,” Pyrrhus is supposed to have said. That wasn’t how we meant to describe the Leave victory in the referendum – the Leave side seem to have ruined themselves quite efficiently since then, but not because of the 2016 campaign.

Naked spirit: In an interesting article about sex and drugs, the author said: “I wouldn’t want to be bearing my soul to someone I picked up in a club.” Nothing wrong with that, really. There is no reason why the common phrase shouldn’t refer to carrying one’s soul about as if for display. But the original metaphor was of unclothing the soul and rendering it bare, hence “baring my soul”.

Weights and measures: “Cassowaries are similar to emus and are among the largest bird species in the world, weighing up to 60kg and reaching up to 6ft in height,” we said in our report of a 75-year-old man killed by the large flightless bird he kept at his home in Florida.

As John Schluter pointed out, we were mixing our metric and imperial measures. I would say in our defence that this reflects common usage – except that the first person in the office I asked said they would give their weight in stones and pounds. So perhaps we should have said nine and a half stone.

The best part of that story, though, was this paragraph: “A woman who identified herself as the victim’s partner told the Gainesville Sun newspaper that he had died ‘doing what he loved’.”

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