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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #68 (article first published : 2005-08-1)

The newspersons are indeed hard at it, hewing away in the forests of the night, and their efforts shouldn’t pass without due recognition.

Our Durban morning paper scored something of a jackpot recently. Its front-page lead story described a collision at sea. One of the ships involved was called the “Ouro do Brasil” (Gold of Brazil). The writer of the story managed to spell this four times over as “Euro da Brazil” – twelve letters, three words, with a spelling mistake in each. Presumably his spell-check told him that was OK – after all, only an ignoramus would spell Brazil with an s, right? Unless, of course, he lives there and speaks Portuguese – they have a funny habit of spelling it that way.

What is interesting is that on the same front page was a colour photograph of the ship in question. It showed the damage to its bow, on which was painted its name – spelt correctly, to nobody’s surprise. All right then, let’s accept that the newspaper writer was in a hurry and hadn’t seen the photograph when he wrote it. But surely somebody must have looked at the layout of the front page in some detail before it reached the streets? What was he looking for?

But the prize for public spelling errors must go this time to the creator of a huge headstone unveiled by our Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, a couple of weeks ago. It commemorated a young “struggle hero”, and displayed the inscription “WE HOUNOR OUR HEROES”. (I am indebted to Hogarth of the Sunday Times, Johannesburg, for sharing this gem with us.)

In a different category of idiocy is the female journalist who gushingly advised us that certain South African clothing designers were about to be “jettisoned on to the world stage”, as though that were some kind of compliment. Nobody had ever told her that to jettison something is to throw it overboard, usually from a ship in danger.

Another lady, an Asian writer of distinction, lamented the fact that India’s industrial progress was causing “unsustainable damage to the environment.” But surely that is exactly the kind of damage we would prefer, if there has to be any? Her problem is that she has seen “sustainable” used to describe the acceptable use of resources, such as establishing new plantations to replace felled trees. “Sustainable” therefore, in her mind, equals “good”. So “unsustainable” must be bad, the ideal word to describe damage. But alas, it doesn’t work that way – “unsustainable damage” is simply nonsense.

“Jettison” reminds me, inconsequentially, of another curious habit of South African journalists, or in fact South Africans in general. We cling to song-titles, film-titles, advertising slogans and so on, as if they contained some sort of revealed wisdom; and we use them over and over again. A press photograph of absolutely anyone at an airport is pretty sure to have the caption “Leaving on a jet-plane,” a song-title from – oh dear, was it the fifties or the sixties? When, may I ask, did you last see a piston-engined airliner? And why is the means of propulsion so important?

A local bank ran a series of TV advertisements in which the last line was “Makes you think, doesn’t it?” It must be a decade since the advertisements were aired, but that punch-line still appears in letters to the editor of any newspaper you care to mention.

Bang on cue, today’s paper carried a picture of a tennis-player modelling a dress. She was standing in front of a green background. The caption read – wait for it – “How green was my volley,” from the title of a novel of (at a guess) the 1930’s. What was the point of the joke, if any?

Perhaps we only trust the second-hand; if something’s been used before, it must be safe. But that doesn’t make it witty. Or interesting. Makes you think, doesn’t it?




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