Mea culpa: the phantom menace of horse-based metaphors

Questions of style and usage in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Friday 24 May 2019 19:48
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Natalie Portman as Padmé Amidala and Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn in 'The Phantom Menace'
Natalie Portman as Padmé Amidala and Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn in 'The Phantom Menace'

Many of my opinions are unpopular. Tony Blair was on balance a good prime minister. David Cameron was quite right to hold a referendum on Europe. All skyscrapers in London are wonderful apart from the “Walkie-Talkie”.

But there is one opinion that is less popular than the others. It is that The Phantom Menace is the best Star Wars film. So I did not agree with the starting point of our look back to the film’s launch, 20 years ago, at which the headline subtly hinted: “Disaster of the universe”.

And I was unsympathetic to the argument that “the unruliness of The Phantom Menace, on which Lucas had unmitigated free reign, helped lead to the current way big film franchises are handled, in which multiple directors are kept on short leashes, beholden to a wider, company-led vision for that film series”.

Apart from the evident wrongness of this opinion, however, there are three things wrong with the words. One is “multiple”, which I think is an ugly version of “several”.

The second is “free reign”, which is a common confusion with “free rein”. The phrase is one of many metaphors from the age of horse-based transport, meaning to allow the horse to run unchecked. One of the reasons it survives, I suspect, is that it has taken on, by sounding the same, the slightly different meaning of absolute monarchical authority.

The third is “unmitigated”. This is partly redundant, because the word seems to be used here to mean the same as “free”. But in fact to mitigate something is to make it less severe, which you can’t do with giving someone free rein, but which still doesn’t make much sense if we were talking about George Lucas’s “reign”. The suggestion is not that his dominion was harsh, but that it was “unruly” and produced a bad film.

Which The Phantom Menace isn’t, anyway. As we concluded earlier.

Mis-selling: Keeping headlines short sometimes makes them ambiguous. This week we said: “Saudis sold £11m worth of arms after Kashoggi death.” As David Barnes pointed out, it was clear from the article that it wasn’t the Saudis who did the selling. He rightly suggested deleting the redundant “worth”, so it could have read “UK sold £11m of arms to Saudis after Kashoggi death”, which would have been the same length.

Protesting Americanisms: On other occasions, leaving words out leaves us accused of Americanism. In the sports section of the Daily Edition we had the headline, “Southgate: England will not walk off to protest racism.” Thanks to Philip Nalpanis for pointing it out. Our style is to protest against things, which is what we said in the report itself: “Gareth Southgate says England’s squad do not plan to walk off the pitch to protest against racist abuse.”

Similarly, our style is to appeal against rulings. In a world news in brief item about Volodymr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president, we reported that the speaker of the parliament had said the president’s “intention to disband parliament ran contrary to the constitution, and would be appealed”. It would be inelegant to stick an “against” on the end there, so perhaps it should have been something like, “... and would be contested in the courts”.

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