Mea Culpa: the language of war, conflict and violence

Questions of usage and pedantry in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 09 March 2018 11:32 GMT
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Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, was this week accused of using inflammatory language
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, was this week accused of using inflammatory language (Getty)

Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament, and 19 of her colleagues, took us to task this week for our language. Well, I say “us”: I mean “many senior politicians and much of the press”. Our crime, when talking and writing about Brexit, is to use “not the language of cooperation and respect, but of war and conflict”.

One of the phrases to which they objected was “war cabinet”, as in Brexit war cabinet, a term journalists sometimes use to refer to the EU Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) sub-Committee of the Cabinet.

I admit I was surprised to find that the only time we used the term in the past week was in reporting the MEPs’ letter, which they sent to the Foreign Secretary. But I was also slightly surprised to find that I agreed with the MEPs. It is editorialising to suggest that the decision by a country to leave a club is equivalent to a declaration of war. Perhaps it would be sensible, and almost as short, to call it the “inner cabinet”.

That said, some of the MEPs’ complaints were unjustified. They didn’t like “punishment”, “demands” or “provocation”, all of which seem perfectly normal words to me. I think there is a difference between the ordinary language of conflict, which is part of democratic debate, and metaphors of war and killing, which ought to be used more carefully.

What is more, Bearder and her colleagues seem confused about their targets. By writing to Boris Johnson, were they implying that the Government should regulate the language used by the media? By all means, ask him and his ministerial colleagues to wind their necks in, but if they want to ask us journalists to be careful with our words, a letter to the Editor would do.

The Queen’s boats: We wrote about Charles Darwin’s reading habits this week, and referred to the 400 books he took on his voyages on “the HMS Beagle”. David Hatcher wrote to remind us that HMS stands for Her Majesty’s Ship, so we should say “the Beagle” or “HMS Beagle”. We have changed it to the latter.

Travelling light: In an interview with Dan Biggar, a rugby player who joined Northampton Saints six months ago, we said that this “may as well be light years ago”. As John Schluter pointed out, a light year is a measure of distance (how far light travels in a year, which is about 10 trillion kilometres), and not of time.

Overreach: Language changes, and one of the main ways modern English evolves is by American usages becoming popular among young British journalists. As a young, hip and transatlantic news organisation, The Independent is of course at ease with innovation.

We want to expand our readership among as broad a range as possible, however, so we ought to be aware of the occasional spluttering from older readers. One formula that guarantees protests is when we say we have “reached out” to So-and-so for comment about something they are alleged to have done.

Our style for such things is to say that The Independent has “contacted” So-and-so for comment.

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