Sunday 1 October 2017

Misunderstandings 6

The sentence “Seals in the ocean will sample but a soupcon of the stuff” should have been cut out, disembowelled and stuck on spikes as a warning to future science writers. (Oliver Moody, Times Sept 2017 Rejected prose, typed on paper, was stuck on a SPIKE on the editor’s desk. It was called a “spike file”, and did not resemble a bed of nails. You can still get them.)

George Orwell said that good writing is a window pane, an object of clarity and shining precision. (
Roger Lewis, Times Sept 2017 (In Why I Write, George Orwell wrote that “good prose is like a windowpane”. He meant it should be transparent, so that you can see the meaning through it, and that you shouldn’t dirty the glass with your own ego. )

Butter had been replaced by a repulsive whale-fat slime called Snoek. (Nicky Haslam, Redeeming Features. Snoek was whale meat. During the war butter was replaced by margarine. He also thinks “flak” (anti-aircraft fire) was metallic tinsel dropped to confuse German radar. It was called "chaff".)

Ripping up red tape: You can rip up regulations, they’re printed on paper, but legal red tape (which is actually pink) is woven and tough and you have to cut it.

The announcement that the Queen’s speech has to be printed on “goatskin parchment” led to stories on the BBC and in the Telegraph claiming that we had to wait while her speech was hand-written on a goatskin scroll. “Goatskin parchment” is the kind used in parchment craft, and is a kind of fine but robust paper. The UK’s laws are, however, handwritten on parchment scrolls made of calf or goatskin. It’s very durable, and the writing is not easily altered. The story rapidly involved a scapegoat... (Pictures and footage of the Queen reading her speech show her with a booklet, never a scroll.)

The table behind me has two women on it, one with a ridiculously loud, piercing, crystal-posh voice, that you just can't not hear, even with considerable effort. (AJB)

“Twitter — don’t really do it,” she says wearily, her home counties accent as sharp as mandolined celeriac. (Times May 2017 However sharp your mandoline – there are several kinds – sliced celeriac would not be very sharp. The cliché is “cut-glass tones”.)

Stepped wife for Stepford Wife (Stepford Wives was a film about a suburb, Stepford, in which all the wives were replaced by lifelike robots who never stepped out of line.)

Carol Midgley doesn’t want to go back to the 70s and have to wear those horrible hot, itchy “nylons” – she means tights. Nylons were nylon stockings: thin, fine and non-stretchy, and held up by a suspender belt.

What a trooper! (Surely it’s troupers – itinerant actors – who are prepared to endure any conditions and take on any role? Or are troopers meant – infantrymen – who get the short end of the stick and obey orders however misguided?)

Clare Adamson does a bit on Schrödinger's Cat: "The Brexit box is open, the cat's about to eat the poison. Get out of the box!" (Philip Sim @BBCPhilipSim Schrödinger's Cat was in a box with some radioactive material that might or might not kill it. Until you opened the box, it was both dead and alive. I think.)

She always put the emPHASis on the wrong syllABle.
The BBC's radio drama version of Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers is excellent, but the actors frequently get the emphasis wrong.

Two typists are having tea: If I give you a bob and you give me twopence and the waitress twopence and settle up at the desk, we shall be all square.

It should be: "If you give me twopence and the waitress twopence." Plus, the typists are played as posh and affected, whereas in the book they are lower down the social scale.

Lord Peter Wimsey asks: Is it possible – I fear it is – I think you must have encountered my unfortunate cousin Bredon.’ ‘That was the name –’ began Dian, uncertainly, and stopped. 

In the radio version, Dian says “That was the name…” instead of “That was the name…”, meaning she thinks she’s heard it somewhere.

‘Oh, do tell,’ urged Dian, her eyes dancing with excitement. ‘It sounds too terribly breath-taking.’
‘I suspect him,’ said Wimsey, in solemn and awful tones, ‘of having to do with – smug-druggling –
I mean, dash it all – drug-smuggling.’

In the radio version, “smug-druggling” is corrected to “drug-smuggling”, and the joke is lost.

David Thorpe reads Margery Allingham's Look to the Lady enjoyably, but talks about a horse called Bitter Aloes in her loose box. (It's a loose box, where the horse is not tied up, and you accent aloes on the first syllable.)

A Radio 3 announcer referred to the Land of Lost Content with the accent on the first syllable, as if it was Web-page content. (It's content, meaning contentment.)

More here, and links to the rest.


  1. I love it that you are picky and pedantic, and I whole-heartedly agree with your criticisms. I am forever harrumphing at the wrong emphasis on Radio 4 - sentences where it is obvious what should be the key word (but apparently not).

  2. I've gone back to read all six "Misunderstandings" - Perhaps in a future one you could cover: hoist on one's own petard (which alludes to an explosion, not a rope), and 'bated' breath (that is, held or subdued breathing, due to the suspense of the situation - not baited like a fishhook).

  3. Merideth - I include those under "howlers"! Journalists are so young these days that they've never seen a communal teaspoon, or a spike file, and don't know why posh voices are "cut glass".