Sunday, 4 September 2011

Infelicities revisited

The Queens English
Infelicities Revisited and Mistaken Meanings


Yes, there are as always, more infelicities that I have had the displeasure of encountering on radio, television and in print of late. Today, I will also include words used by mistake - words that don't mean what the users evidently think they mean.
Obviously these mistaken meanings are innocent - no one uses the wrong word intentionally, do they? Sometimes though the result can be, ironically, apt.
The first mistaken meaning that springs to mind, was used by Ahmed Chalabi, in 2003. he was speaking on the BBC about his being installed as ruler of Iraq, following the ousting and death of Saddam Hussein.
“I shall be” he said “the nominal leader of the Iraqi people.” *
Almost certainly, he did not mean to say what he was in fact saying - that he would be the ruler in name only, and yet that is precisely what he became. He had lived in America for long enough to have known the English language very well - indeed, he spoke well, with the fluency of a native speaker. Interestingly he may well have known exactly what what he was saying... presciently or cynically.
The second mistaken meaning, is one I came across in an interesting and rather bad tempered book, about the mores of contemporary society, by an American professor of English literature. His mistake is a common American one - when he refers to a passage from the novel Jane Eyre, he calls Jane the titular character. The Collins Dictionary, first published 1902, but my edition 1985, defines titular as: “pertaining to title, in name only”. So we see that the word 'titular' has the same meaning as nominal! Jane is not the titular character of the novel Jane Eyre, she is the title character!
The most common infelicity I have heard recently is one I may have mentioned before, and it involves articles. As we all know, the definite article is 'the', and we say 'the' regardless of whether the noun following the article starts with a consonant or a vowel (a,e i o or u.) however the indefinite article, 'a' or 'an' differs depending on whether the following noun starts with a consonant or a vowel. We say 'a book' but we say 'an apple'. Recently, though I have heard people say “a apple” or the like - using 'a' before a word starting with a vowel. Try it and you'll see - it's neither natural nor easy! So why do people do it? I heard a radio reporter say in a news bulletin 'a extraordinary' (I didn't note what it was she was referring to). But what a tongue twister! The same reporter then mentioned, probably a statistic to do with unemployment or inflation - and she said “this leaped”. It ought to have been leapt! That brings me to the vexed question of irregular verbs - but that's for next time...
* I believe he might have meant "the nominated ruler", unless as I have said, he was more cynical and prescient than he seemed.