Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Empty words, headless MPs and flowers

with 23 comments

Claude Choules -  The last one of 70m

Image by Tram Painter via Flickr

Lazy journalism really annoys me; especially when the story is a gift. Here’s a reporter on BBC Radio 4 talking about the death of 110-year-old Claude Choules, the last known veteran of the First World War: 

…as others passed away, history closed in on him.  

It did? In what way exactly? Even if some vague meaning can be derived from the phrase ‘history closed in on him’…no, scrap that line of enquiry, I can’t even think of a vague meaning. Interesting to know that others died before he did, though. 

Having turned off my clanging ‘using words for the sake of stringing a meaningless sentence together’ alarm (along with the radio), I trip over this from the Guardian

…The Telegraph posts a “whose boobs are these?” blog alongside a photo of a headless Labour MP… 

We have headless MPs? Is the coalition to blame? Setting aside the puerile nature of The Telegraph’s coverage, I realised that it’s surprisingly difficult to come up with an elegant description of a photo depicting a seated woman’s torso. Or perhaps I just did? Or does that sound more like a description of a gruesome murder scene? Discuss with examples. 

Thought you might like to know… 

The word ‘journalist’ is obviously based on the word ‘journal’, which originally referred to a book that listed the times for daily prayers. ‘Journal’ is based on the Latin ‘diurnalis’, with ‘diurnus’ meaning ‘daily’ and ‘dies’ meaning ‘day’. Now, of course, we have the word ‘diurnal’ meaning ‘of or during the day’ or ‘daily’. 

And this is lovely: in the eighteenth century, Latin masters called examples of good writing style ‘flowers’. 

Maybe some of our journalists should get out into the garden more often. 

Royal wedding bombshell 

Sweeping away class barriers 

Some things are worth repeating and others aren’t 

A preference for orientation 

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? 



23 Responses

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  1. “Latin masters called examples of good writing style ‘flowers’. ”

    As in “blooms” or as in “something which flows nicely”?


    05/05/2011 at 11:58 am

    • Hi, Ron – I like your ‘flows nicely’ in relation to ‘flowers’! I’ve been trying to find out a bit more about this use of the word ‘flowers’ but the only reference I have come across so far is in M.T. Clanchy’s introduction to The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. There’s nothing in my ODE about it, and a fairly brief googlathon came up with zip. The nearest thing I could find was a definition of ‘the flower of’ in the ODE: a figurative expression meaning the finest individuals out of a number of people or things.

      Thanks, Ron! Hope you’re doing OK.


      05/05/2011 at 12:23 pm

      • Got a call from my GP this morning, very conciliatory after angry letter last week. http://ronsrants.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/chronicles-of-the-heart-part-4%e2%80%a6/ which you might have seen.

        Agreed to stop meddling in my analgesia, arranged a proper cardiology assessment – not just an ECG, and replaced the drug that tried to kill me with something that might not – we’ll see.

        And I’m trying to buy a high-tech wheelchair but PayPal is getting in the way!


        05/05/2011 at 12:34 pm

      • I have a sneaky feeling it might well be “flow-er” not “flower” in this context. It’d make more sense.

        I suspect the origin, and the exact meaning, are lost in time.


        05/05/2011 at 12:59 pm

        • Ron — you initiated the rarely held consulting the biggest and heaviest book in the world ceremony (the innacurately named Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary). Having winched it down from the shelf using heavy lifting machinery I happen to keep in my shed, I have found the following:

          One meaning of ‘flower’ is ‘an embellishment or ornament (of speech), a choice phrase’. Rarely used as singular in this context.

          One example it gives of this use is a book title from 1533 (so much earlier than I mentioned):

          Flovres for Latyne Spekynge, selected and gathered oute of Terence

          If you ask me, they should have first learnt to spell in English before tackling Latin.


          05/05/2011 at 1:27 pm

          • Doesn’t prove the case for “flowers” as applied to writing, though.

            And I have no idea what it’s saying.


            05/05/2011 at 1:36 pm

            • The symbolic application of the action of flower gathering is very old. The original collection of the sayings and stories about Francis of Assisi assembled into writing during the Middle Ages is entitled “The Little Flowers of St. Francis”. In medieval Latin, a collection of excerpts from longer works was called a “florilegium”, which means a gathering of flowers. This is also the meaning of the Greek word anthologia, from which we get anthology.

              Invisible Mikey

              05/05/2011 at 6:51 pm

              • Oh, thanks for this lovely contribution, Mikey. I especially like ‘florilegium’, which I haven’t come across before — and I didn’t know about ‘anthologia’ either.

                I always very much appreciate your interesting and informative comments — thanks again.


                05/05/2011 at 7:14 pm

  2. Meaningless rubbish (not your post) – shows a lack of respect for Claude Choules, I think. His own words have much more resonance (as quoted by his son):

    “He used to say that while he was serving in the war he was trained to hate the enemy, but later he really grew to understand that they were just young blokes who were the same as him.”

    “He said wars were planned by old men and fought by young men and that they were a stupid waste of time and energy.”

    Mr Choules also apparently said that his secret to long life was to ‘keep breathing’.

    By the way – don’t forget First World War non-combat vet, Britain’s Florence Green, who served with the Royal Air Force and is now aged 110.

    Lizi Brown

    05/05/2011 at 12:04 pm

    • Thanks for all that, Lizi! I’m going to try that keep breathing thing. Also, thanks for the info about Florence Green; I should have made it clearer in the post that Mr Choules was the last combat veteran.


      05/05/2011 at 12:26 pm

  3. Deborah,
    Thanks for making my day, as always!
    And Lizi, thanks for letting us hear from Mr. Choules himself.

    Maggie Manning

    05/05/2011 at 1:16 pm

    • Maggie! How lovely to hear from you. Thanks to you, too, for taking the time to comment. Glad you enjoyed it!


      05/05/2011 at 1:28 pm

  4. Oops. I did it again. I commented on something before I checked the source; in this case, the line from the Claude Choules story that Deborah mentioned and that some of us thought didn’t make sense.

    Turns out, the writer didn’t write what’s in this blog. Here’s the actual reference to history from the BBC broadcast:

    “As, one by one, his fellow veterans passed away he [Choules] must have felt history was closing in on him. But, although his body was failing, his mind remained alert until the end.

    “I’m lucky aren’t I, to be surviving all that time,” he once told the BBC. “If I had my time over again I wouldn’t change a bit of it”

    “Claude Choules was the last link with a war that wiped out a generation. Now, like the conflict in which he fought, he has passed into history.”

    Bravo for better writing although I might have edited the final phrase in the final sentence as: “he has passed into history — the history he helped make.” I’m so sentimental.

    P.S. I did write Deborah to say that I understood the quote she referenced even though it wasn’t crystal clear. I did so because of context (in this case, oldest veteran, etc.), which has a tremendous impact on what we say when we write, and what we as readers assume from what has been written.

    Don Bates

    06/05/2011 at 2:48 pm

    • Hi, Don – thanks for that. I prefer your ‘he has passed into history…’ quote too. A vast improvement!

      Btw – there were lots of different BBC broadcasts on this topic – I took a contemporaneous verbatim note of the quote cited in my post.

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment here. Much appreciated.


      06/05/2011 at 2:57 pm

  5. Invisible Mikey’s comment about flowers is stunning — like a brocaded venetian jar of Dutch tulips. Kudos.

    Don Bates

    06/05/2011 at 3:00 pm

  6. I have a hard time reading news anymore without constantly finding things that annoy me. It’s easy to write these fluff pieces that sound meaningful, but when you parse the sentences you realize half of them don’t mean anything.

    The Good Greatsby

    09/05/2011 at 1:23 am

    • Hi, Paul — welcome to Wordwatch Towers! I’ll get the butler to pour you a desperate measure.

      Yes, I often fear for my blood pressure. Jane Austen had it sussed:

      Lady Middleton…exerted herself to ask Mr Palmer if there was any news in the paper.
      “No, none at all,” he replied, and read on.

      (Sense and Sensibility)

      Your blog is very funny — I hope your mum is still speaking to you.


      09/05/2011 at 7:56 am

  7. One good turn, Deborah; as you were good enough to visit – and comment on – my blog it’s only right I reciprocate.

    Although, obviously, had I visited and not liked it I’d have slunk (slinked?) away without so much as a word.

    As it is, I’m not minded to slink at all. From what I’ve read so far I’m broadly like-minded (if a good deal less knowledgeable).


    09/05/2011 at 2:19 pm

    • Hi and welcome! I’m glad you didn’t slink away. Especially as your comment made me laugh — when I first quickly read it, I thought you were saying you were less knowledgeable as a result of reading my posts.

      Seriously, though, I’m not insecure or anything, but could you sign the enclosed form in triplicate to confirm that’s not what you meant. Thanks.



      09/05/2011 at 2:41 pm

  8. Shameful, really, that my first post on a blog about clarity and precision in writing – when I run something similar myself – is so poorly worded as to leave the reader in doubt as to meaning.

    Throw that blanket over my head and stuff me in the police transit before the crowd gets to me …


    09/05/2011 at 6:08 pm

    • Not poorly worded at all — I was just reading too quickly and got to the end before I read the start. Mea culpa. 🙂

      (Just the three signatures where indicated. Thanks.)


      09/05/2011 at 6:28 pm

  9. …The Telegraph posts a “whose boobs are these?” blog alongside a photo of a headless Labour MP…

    hmm, maybe…
    The Telegraph posts “Whose Boobs Are These?” blog beside picture of Labour MP with her head removed from photo”
    Or this…
    Head Removed from photo of Labour MP, The Telegraph posts picture beside blog that asks”Whose Boobs Are These”


    10/05/2011 at 8:32 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — thanks for those suggestions, both of which are better than the original, and neither of which evokes a murder scene, as did my effort.

      Lovely to see you here again!


      10/05/2011 at 8:39 pm

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