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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2003-02-5)

So the world grinds on into 2003, without much perceptible enthusiasm. The threat of war in the Middle East is sufficient to guarantee a certain queasiness.

This doesn’t, however, excuse one of our South African journalists, who happily talks of that “foreboding prospect.” What he has in mind is “a forbidding prospect,” something sinister or threatening. “Foreboding” is something experienced by the observer, a premonition, usually of evil.

You will see that in South Africa, at least, the mutilation of English proceeds at a merry pace. Another confusion between similar words is becoming quite common – the use of “incidence” instead of “incident”, as in “There have been several incidences of violence in the area.” An incident is an event. Incidence is the frequency or range of occurrence of something, as in “the incidence of malaria” in a given place.

A single story in a recent morning newspaper carried two examples of this sort of verbal confusion. One sentence referred to “the only principle character to have retained her role…” (should have been “principal”), and a paragraph or two later we were told of “the premier of the opera” (should have been “premiere”). And I gratefully raise my hat to the radio newsreader who announced that “the goods recovered will be fortified to the Department of Customs and Excise.” (He meant, of course, “forfeited”).

More often, our newspapers are afflicted simply by errors of taste or style. Their compilers display a complete lack of a sense of irony or possible double entendre. A blood-curdling story today told of cannibalism being practised on Congolese pygmies by rebel troops in that country. It gave a whole new meaning to another story, a week or two ago, in which the Minister of Labour announced that “we are receiving a lot of quality brains from several parts of the continent.” Yes, I know what he meant, but did he have to put it quite like that?

One of our radio chat-show people fell into a mathematical booby-trap last week. He was going on about the so-called Golden Ratio or Golden Section (of which more later). He described it as “the ratio of 1.608. Oops! My controller says it should be 1.618!” His controller was right, but the basic error was still there – a single number cannot be a ratio, in which one number must be related to another. What he was after was the ratio of 1 to 1.618. Oddly, this Golden Ratio is in itself interesting enough to warrant another column in this series.

Finally, we have had an assault on history. The writer concerned credited Shaka, despotic ruler of the Zulus in the 19th Century, with the invention of a battle formation called “the horns (of an ox)”. In this formation, the lateral units of a force fanned out and advanced, bracketing the enemy in a trap from which there was no escape.

But this formation was already familiar in Roman times (not that Shaka had any means of finding that out.) The Romans even used the same word – “cornu”, a horn - as a name for it.

The diarist Pliny the Elder (A D 23 – 79) is credited with the saying “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi – From Africa there is always something new.” But this time (as so often), it seems that the Romans got there first.

Contextually Yours – Ulysses Online.




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