Deaf To Fowler

Dear Sir,

When I picked up the Dec 2003 / Jan 2004 issue of LR from the wharf- the packet-steamer from London had just docked – I heaved a sigh of despair. Amanda Craig misused ‘eke out’ on page 67: ‘Jack Smollett . . . ekes out a living as a teacher.’ As Fowler chides, ‘You can eke out your income or . . . a scanty subsistence with odd jobs or by fishing, but you cannot eke out a living or a miserable existence.’

And in the paperback reviews you printed the phrase ‘set out to hoist Modernist bombast on its own petard’. Your author’s is a common misreading of its source, Hamlet’s wonderfully cruel phrase, “Tis sport to see the engineer hoist with his own petard’.

An engineer in Shakespeare’s time made engines of war. A petard is not a pole or a lifting device, it’s a bomb or mine. (The word is from the French ‘pétard’, from Old French, ‘peter’, to break wind.) Hoist means raised or flung up. You can’t say that someone is hoist ‘on’ a petard for the same reason that you can’t say they get blown up ‘on’ a bomb.

Honestly, if the top literary wicket-keepers in London can’t catch a few obvious blunders, where’s literature headed? Down the toilet with the bloody post-modernists, that’s where! Yours faithfully,

 

Disappointed, Sydney

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