That word doesn’t mean what you think it means

So the Guardian ran an Associated Press story on Saturday about Pope Benedict XVI approving recognition of martyrdom for an Austrian who was beheaded by the Nazis for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army. The story ran far and wide.

But thanks to the reader who brought the headline from the Guardian to our attention:

Pope Martyrs Austrian Beheaded by Nazis

Yeah, um, Guardian folks? Here’s the definition for martyr when used as a verb:

1. To make a martyr of, especially to put to death for devotion to religious beliefs.
2. To inflict great pain on; torment.

So, uh, I don’t think that’s the word you meant to use.

This weekend I read a quote in a George Will column that seems to apply. It comes from Alistair Cooke’s Memories of the Great and the Good:

One time, years ago, the veteran Baltimore newspaperman, H.L. Mencken, was checking copy coming in from the night editor and sighing at the rising number of errors he was noticing, errors of fact but also of syntax, and even some idioms that didn’t sound quite right. He shook his head and said, as much to himself as to the editor at his side: “The older I get the more I admire and crave competence, just simple competence, in any field from adultery to zoology.”

I’m with Mencken. And I’m not sure if this is another example of how the media don’t get religion or how they don’t get vocabulary.

UPDATE: Reader Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz, who alerted me to the problem, writes in the comments:

Unfortunately, it wasn’t limited to The Guardian, Mollie. Do a Google News search under “pope martyr” and there are no less than 42 stories with that headline, even at such places as Forbes, The Miami Herald and the Times Picayune. It finally started to change with USA Today running “Pope approves martyrdom for Austrian, Japanese.” That USA Today should get something right that The Guardian should have gotten right is maybe just a bit topsy-turvy.

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  • http://hometown.aol.com/frgregacca/ Fr. Greg

    Obviously, we should all be with Mencken on this one. These sorts of errors are entirely too prevalent, regardless of subject matter. A recent example from a local TV station, announcing a charity event: “All proceeds will benefit domestic violence.” Huh?

  • Stephen A.

    I expect any day to read about a scientist who loses his job for questioning man-made Global Warming to be labeled a “heretic” and for someone who loses his job defending this new religion to be called a “Martyr for Mother Earth.”

    Oftentimes, as in this case, PC trumps actual definitions of words.

  • http://www.catholicradiointernational.com/ Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Unfortunately, it wasn’t limited to The Guardian, Mollie. Do a Google News search under “pope martyr” and there are no less than 42 stories with that headline, even at such places as Forbes, The Miami Herald and the Times Picayune. It finally started to change with USA Today running “Pope approves martyrdom for Austrian, Japanese.” That USA Today should get something right that The Guardian should have gotten right is maybe just a bit topsy-turvy.

  • Larry Rasczak

    On the Daily Show last week John Stewart was covering the Monica Goodling hearings. He caught a clip of Rep. Shelia Jackson-Lee (D-Tx 18) asking Goodling to “Keep her answers cryptic and brief.”

    Stewart then quipped “…to which Ms. Goodling replied “Rosebud.” “

  • Martha

    Even “Pope approves martyrdom” is a bit of a howler – read literally, it means that the Pope thought the Austrian and the Japanese should be martyred, which I think is overstating the case slightly.

    Going by the report, what they meant to say was “Pope beatifies Austrian beheaded by Nazis”. Still, it’s the dear old ‘Grauniad’, as “Private Eye” dubbed them:

    “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guardian

    The nickname ‘The Grauniad’ for the paper originated with the satirical magazine Private Eye. It came about because of its reputation for frequent and sometimes unintentionally amusing typographical errors, hence the popular myth that the paper once misspelled its own name on the page one masthead as ‘The Gaurdian’, though many recall the more inventive ‘The Grauniad’. Although such errors are now less frequent than they used to be, owing to the end of hot-metal typesetting, the ‘Corrections and clarifications’ column can still often provide some amusement. There were even a number of errors in the first issue, perhaps the most notable being a notification that there would soon be some goods sold at ‘atction’ instead of ‘auction’.”

    It’ll be interesting to see if the error is either corrected of their own accord or brought to their attention.

  • http://www.catholicradiointernational.com/ Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I have to say, Martha, you got me on that one. I guess the Washington Times said it best with “Benedict declares Austrian a martyr.”

  • http://sblogs.com/153 Paul

    The Oxford English Dictionary gives a meaning for ‘martyr’ as “Represents as a martyr”, and refers to Milton (1649) as using the word that way: “Though the Picture sett in front would Martyr him and Saint him to befoole the people.”

  • http://stevegriffin.no-ip.info Opie

    Leave it to me to totally miss the point of a story. I read the whole thing, and I find myself sitting here wondering which is worse: to be a competent adulterer or an incompetent one.

  • Martha

    Opie, I guess it depends if you’re going to make a profession of it ;-)

  • http://hairouna.livejournal.com Discernment

    Haha. I think it’s a funny and clever titel — technically correct, somewhat misleading, funny and clever. For the technically correct bit, look at what Paul said (post 7) and consider that the definition given by the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (www.askoxford.com). It only says “make a martyr of”. The word ‘make’ includes the meaning used as well as the more commonly interpreted one for this context.

  • http://aconservativesiteforpeace.info The young fogey
  • Eli

    Love the quote.

    “The older I get the more I admire and crave competence, just simple competence, in any field from adultery to zoology.”

    True that. Competence is *so* underrated … esp. in the MSM.


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