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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 : 2003-04-7)

The drama unfolding in Iraq occupies our TV sets and our minds to the exclusion of almost everything else. To anyone old enough to remember World War II, there is something indecent, almost repulsive, about the immediacy of war reporting in the TV era. At least during that last conflict we were not required to watch the death and destruction as it took place. I have the greatest admiration for the brave journalists who are reporting live from the Iraqi battlefronts but I have a feeling that if I had to go into battle I would prefer a measure of privacy while I did so. I wouldn’t want my family or the neighbours watching my demise over their afternoon tea.

Apart from that, it has to be admitted that war makes a gripping spectacle. Thomas Hardy remarked once, “My argument is that War makes rattling good history; but Peace is poor reading.” A callous remark? Perhaps, but of course the wars of which he spoke were already history, a very different matter from the in-your-face conflict now taking place before our eyes.

It is sad to note that the war has completely eclipsed the memory of another fiery disaster, barely two months old, in which seven invaluable lives came to a frightful end –the wreck of the space-shuttle Columbia. And one of the worst features of that event seems to me that it had largely been foreseen. On February 3 our morning newspaper quoted “a recent report” as saying: “Decaying infrastructure and shuttle component obsolescence are significant contributors to a future declining safety posture.”

And here we get back to our subject – language, and clarity in using it. That quoted sentence is a masterpiece of official gobbledygook, masking a vitally important message. What the writer was trying to say was, “This machine is getting old. It is wearing out. It is dangerous. Don’t fly it!” But he didn’t say it in so many words, and Columbia flew, and was destroyed with everyone on board.

And now to some other journalists, many of whom write as though they were under fire when they aren’t. The first candidate for inspection is none other than Sir William Deedes, a journalist of such eminence that I can hardly believe he wrote this. Perhaps it was a typesetter’s error, if we still have typesetters? In The Weekly Telegraph, Sir William wrote (of Robert Mugabe): “He is seen as less of a threat to the outside world than Saddam Hussein, but as a tyrant, flaunting the rule of law and abusing every canon of human rights, he is every bit as bad.” The word he wanted was, of course, “flouting”.

The f-words seem to be a problem with our scribes at present. A staff member of our morning newspaper described an interview she had conducted while she and her subject were seated on the latter’s patio. Here, it appears, graceful flowering plants “flounced out of large pots…” “Flounce” is defined as “to move abruptly, impatiently or disgustedly.” One wonders what had upset them.

Our third candidate is an advertising copywriter, who invited his readers to study the details of a tempting holiday before “I embark on a peon of praise…” A peon, you will recall, is a Latin-American labourer; the advertised trip was to Mauritius, if memory serves. The “paean”, on the other hand, was a lyric to Apollo in Ancient Greece; or, in general terms, a song of thanksgiving or triumph.

And there, I’m afraid, you must excuse me – I must get back to my TV set.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online




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