Mea Culpa: hearken to the President’s man condemning fake news

Old English, double negatives and the confusion of similar words in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 17 February 2017 13:25 GMT
Sean Spicer, spokesman for Donald Trump
Sean Spicer, spokesman for Donald Trump (Getty)

“We continue to be disgusted by CNN’s fake news reporting”: last Friday we quoted the response of Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, to new reports about the President’s Russian connections. We said: “Mr Spicer’s comment hearkens back to Mr Trump’s disavowal of the story earlier this year.”

This unusual use of English was noted by Paul Edwards. I think he approved of it. I certainly do. The Oxford Dictionary describes hearken as “archaic”, meaning listen, and says “hearken back to” is another way of saying “hark back to”. It says hearken comes from Old English heorcnian, which is “probably related to hark”, and says the spelling with “ea”, dating from the 16th century, is due to association with hear.

Hark and hearken both seem to have shifted in meaning between receive (hear) and transmit (mention, remember, evoke). We should use more words like this.

Not the opposite of negative: In an editorial this week we made a mistake that often happens with double negatives. We said: “General Mattis will take a no less conciliatory position than his boss.” If you untangle it, this means Mattis will take a more conciliatory position, which is the opposite of what we meant. Two readers spotted it in the Daily Edition, but by the time I got their emails we had corrected it on the website to: “It is unlikely that General Mattis will take a more conciliatory position than his boss.”

Accidentally on purpose: We used “purposefully” a couple of times this week when I think “purposely” would have been better. On one occasion we were quoting the writer of the 2000AD comic, who said he “hadn’t purposefully set out to take a potshot” at Nigel Farage, whose caricature had featured in a cameo. We should change other people’s words if their meaning is unclear or if they look foolish, but in this borderline case we were right to leave the word as it was.

However, purposefully means in a way that is full of purpose, resolutely or determinedly, while purposely means on purpose, that is, deliberately. These are similar but distinct meanings.

Bicycling salesperson: We quoted someone else, in a report of a campaign against Ukip, as saying “the establishment have pedalled the idea that every Remain voter is part of a croissant-munching metropolitan elite”. This time we changed the quotation because it is a matter of spelling rather than vocabulary. We meant “peddled”, which means sold, and, except possibly in the French onion market, is nothing to do with riding a bicycle.

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