Mea Culpa: a biblical flood of apt metaphors

John Rentoul
‘The Great Flood’ by Bonaventura Peeters the Elder in the 17th century: this is what a cataclysm should look like

This column often points out the incongruous use of ancient metaphors, the original meaning of which has been forgotten. So it was pleasing to see a word used to fit its original meaning. In an article for the Daily Edition, “The Brexit that nobody voted for”, about the separation of Great Britain from the continent 100,000 years ago, we wrote about the seafloor channel that “appears to have been carved by a major cataclysmic flood from the North Sea into the English Channel”.

Cataclysm has come to mean just disaster, possibly by analogy with catastrophe, Greek for overturning. But it originally meant the biblical flood, from the Greek for deluge. So this really was a cataclysm. What a pity about the unnecessary intensifier, “major”. The whole point about Noah, the ark and the dove coming back with an olive twig is that it was a major event.

Can’t take the heat: When the US President launched cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield last week, we wrote that “Twitter users scalded Mr Trump for having opposed intervention in the past”. We changed it to “scolded”, but that is a rather old-fashioned word and was not what we meant. We didn’t mean Donald Trump was being told off; we meant he was criticised pointedly as a hypocrite. By analogy with the use of “burn” to mean a withering put-down, we meant scalded, so we changed it back.

Cosmic chaos: The first paragraph of a news story on Monday was a fine example of journalese: “The boss of Southern rail was paid almost half a million pounds in 2016 despite ongoing travel chaos on the network amid strikes, cancellations and delays.” The trouble with “travel chaos” is that it is such an over-used exaggeration of “annoying disruption” that it has almost lost its meaning altogether. I prefer “continuing” to “ongoing”, but we didn’t need it anyway: the figure for Charles Horton’s pay relates to last year, when Southern’s service was poor. As for “amid”, what is it doing in there? The “strikes, cancellations and delays” are the “travel chaos”; the chaos was not happening, by chance, in the middle of them. “Despite a year of strikes, cancellations and delays on the network” would have been punchier.

First base: We carried two comment articles this week that used the phrase “step up to the plate”. I know that half of our readers are American, but we are a British news organisation and few of the half of our readers who are not American understand baseball, which is where the phrase comes from. It is also a dreadful cliché. “Step up to their responsibilities”, or just “step up”, would be fine.