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27 April 2012

Common mistakes #8, 9 “myriads of”, “prototypical”

Flat out preparing for tonight’s talk about this blog (see 19 April: Forthcoming Event) so only time to skim the Moscow Times—which I intend as a compliment to the paper in general as it is the first I turn to in the morning.
     However, my eye is caught by two mistakes which I cannot avoid mentioning. In an article about Russia’s richest man, Alisher Usmanov, the author says his fortune was “amassed through a myriad of investments”, in contrast to many other oligarchs whose wealth came from exploiting the privatisation process in the 1990s. I have no idea whether this makes Usmanov a nice guy, and fit owner of Arsenal football club and shareholder in Rangers—where a Protestant background used to be mandatory—but it is clunky English.
Louis XVI
     Myriad is a word, from Greek, meaning 10,000. It is in general use today meaning an unspecified but still vast number. But it should not be used as if it actually meant “vast number”. To say Usmanov and made “a vast number of investments” would be fine, as would he made “a myriad investments”, or “myriads of investments”. Think of the word “million”. You say he made “millions of investments” or “he made a million investments”. You do not say “he made a million of investments”, and therefore not “a myriad of investments”.
     Looking at the picture published with the piece, I could not help noticing a ghostly resemblance between Mr Usmanov and Louis XVI of France and Navarre, especially the set of the mouth. Louis was the chap who was guillotined by angry Revolutionaries in October 1791 because he was popularly thought of, as Dickens put it in Tale of Two Cities, to be “swallowing France”. Whether he was the richest man in the Kingdom I do not know. But he, like Mr Usmanov, had a celebrity wife, in his case the delicate Austrian princess, Marie-Antoinette. Incidentally, neither she nor her husband knew at the time of their marriage how to undertake the sexual act. As a result they remained childless for many years, despite being very affectionate towards each other.
      The Moscow Times ended its piece on Mr Usmanov by noting that his wife, the ex-gymnast Irina Viner, told a Russian newspaper last year that “she and Usmanov were not the sort of couple who brought each other breakfast in bed.”
     Whatever can that be intended to mean? Perhaps it is a reference to the number of servants they have. I doubt whether either Louis or Marie-Antoinette were the ones to bring the breakfast trays upstairs to the marital suite at Versailles.
     Puzzled, one reads on. “‘But when we do see each other, it’s as if it is for the first time,’ Ms Viner said.”
Alisher Usmanov
     This could be read as suggesting that Mme Viner does not see her husband very often, and does not immediately recognise him when she does.
     Of course, I realise that was not what she actually intended to say. But that is the problem of talking in breathless clichés to the media. Better to speak straight-forwardly. Better to be dull. Best of all if you are that rich to say nothing at all, and count your blessings in private.
     One recalls Dickens’s description of France fifteen years before the execution of Louis XVI, at a time when “things in general seemed settled forever”. In the face of cruelty, conspicuous consumption by the Court and aristocracy, and general indifference to the fate of the poverty-stricken masses, a national mood-change was under way:
“Rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees [one particular day in 1775], already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrels of the Revolution.”

 “Prototypical”: Briefly, I must note that in the same edition of the newspaper there is an article about Dmitri Peskov, one of V.V. Putin’s press spokespeople, who has apparently responded to a piece in the Guardian criticising Russian bureaucracy by drawing attention to how difficult it is for Russian citizens to obtain British visas. I will pass over that non sequitur in order to focus on the small grammar point, which is that the author of the Moscow Times article says, “The experience [of form filling at a dry cleaner’s] was prototypical of excessive bureaucracy in Russia.”
      What the author meant was that it was “typical” of excessive bureaucracy. A prototype is an experimental version of a product or other manufactured item. The word cannot be adjectivalised—if I may coin a word—and applied to something that is said to be normal. The point about a prototype is that it is not normal: it is experimental.

1 comment:

  1. With all due respect I must argue the last point of the article. Indeed, nowadays "prototype" commonly refers to an experimental model, most often - of a car. But in traditional, somewhat scientific Russian, the word completely corresponds its Greek origin - a prototype is a predecessor, something (a piece or species) that preceded currently known.
    With this in mind I can't believe that feeling a form at dry-cleaner's was the first and exemplary bureaucracy procedure in this country, so I can't help but agree - Mr. Peskov's (or being more precise - his interpreter's) English is rather clumsy (which I want to hope my English is not).