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News & views

Strigine and lapidary

[16 Dec 2013] Quentin Letts slipped a rare bird of a word into his Daily Mail parliamentary sketch recently, describing The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger as ‘a pukka bookworm with a ruffled hairdo and strigine gaze’. Neither the New Oxford nor the Shorter Oxford includes ‘strigine’, which online dictionaries say relates to the Strigidae or owl family, so means owl-like. Apparently it should be pronounced as if an Australian cricketer were saying ‘Stray Jane’.

A colleague of John Cole, the BBC’s political reporter who died recently, wrote in The Times of Cole’s disgust at being told by an editor on the Nine O’Clock News that he should omit ‘lapidary’ from his script because no-one would understand it. Cole harrumphed that this was the worst kind of dumbing down. His colleagues pretended to agree but as soon as Cole left the room they rushed to consult a dictionary. Lapidary means ‘engraved on or suitable for engraving on stones, therefore elegant and concise’. It also means concerned with stones, engraving etc, so a stonecutter is known as a lapidary. 

All this trouble with the meaning of words reminds me of a cartoon where Trendy Dad, seeing his son engrossed in a book called ‘Thesaurus’, says: ‘You know, son, that’s just great. When I was your age I was interested in dinosaurs too.’ [MC]

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