Mea Culpa: How to read the writing on the wall – you need a Daniel

Ancient stories, arbitrary spelling rules and an inverted inference in this week’s Independent

Belshazzar’s Feast, by John Martin, circa 1821. Poor Belshazzar could not have averted his doom, even if he had seen any graffiti
Belshazzar’s Feast, by John Martin, circa 1821. Poor Belshazzar could not have averted his doom, even if he had seen any graffiti

We misused the cliché about the writing on the wall twice this week. Of Jacob Zuma, who resigned as President of South Africa, we said: “The writing was on the wall for some time.” And we said that the Conservative Party “has a tenacious instinct for reading the writing on the wall” and then doing what was needed to survive.

In both cases we used the phrase as if it meant merely a warning of the end, as if anyone could have seen it – and acted upon it – if they had looked. The point about the story of Daniel is that only he could understand the mysterious writing, and that by the time he said what it meant it was too late for Belshazzar to avert his doom.

Another doomsayer: Just to show I am not just a fault-finding curmudgeon, allow me to congratulate Youssef El-Gingihy on using another ancient story correctly. “Now the unheeded prophecies of the Cassandras have come true,” he wrote in his survey of the private finance initiative.

The point about Cassandra was not just that she was a bit of a pessimist, but that her predictions were true, and that her curse was never to be believed. That is why no one paid attention to her.

Pointless principle: We got principle and principal confused in an article about Theresa May’s appearance on the ITV This Morning sofa. The Prime Minister recognised that many people have serious concerns about “aspects” of student finance – “the principle one being the massive sums of money involved in getting a degree”.

That has been changed to “principal”, meaning the main one. The difference with principle, meaning basic rule, and which comes from the same Latin root (princeps, first, chief), is one of the more pointless and arbitrary conventions of modern English spelling. But pointless and arbitrary spelling conventions are one of the ways we advertise our command of the language, so it is as well to know them.

Czech your vocab: This wasn’t a mistake we made: it was made by lawyers for Jeremy Corbyn. But it is a mistake we do sometimes make, so I draw it to the attention of my colleagues. In their pompous legal letter to Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP, the Labour leader’s solicitors said: “The inference that our client ... had engaged in criminal acts of treachery and spying could not be more seriously harmful of a British citizen.”

What they meant was “the implication”. To infer something is to deduce something that is not explicit, whereas to imply it is the other way round, to suggest something without saying so directly.

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