Friday, April 18, 2008

The Occasional Copy Editor

I cringe when I read things like this:

That Hamas is belligerent and refuses to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist is a major hurtle in advancing peace.

Not because of the understatement of the obvious. But because a "hurdle" is the thing you jump over. A "hurtle" is hardly even usable as a noun. It means "to collide, impact, crash (together) with great force."

Which, excusing the wrong use of a verb as a noun, might actually be a more accurate statement than the one the writer intended to make. Hamas is like a car bomb against peace. Something that could be said to "hurtle." How would it be a "hurdle?" To whom? To the Israelis? To "peace?" When you jump over something, you don't remove it; it remains in place. How is there to be peace if Hamas' essential nature and stated goals remain unchanged?

The words are not related, by the way. Hurdle is Old English hyrdel "frame of intertwined twigs used as a temporary barrier," a diminutive of hyrd, a long-forgotten word for "door," which comes from a Proto-Germanic root that also produced German Hürde "hurdle, fold, pen;" Old Norse hurð and Gothic haurds, both meaning "door." Beyond Germanic, it has relatives in Latin cratis "hurdle, wickerwork," and Greek kartalos "a kind of basket" and kyrtos "fishing creel." The Proto-Indo-European base is *qrt- "to weave, twist together" (cf. Sanskrit krt "to spin"). The usual modern sense of "barrier to jump in a race" is first recorded in 1833; the figurative sense of "obstacle" dates from 1924.

Hurtle, on the other hand, is an early Middle English word, probably a frequentive form of hurt, in its original sense of "to ram, strike, collide." Hurt came into English with the French invasion, and its source is Old French hurter "to ram, strike, collide," but the word probably ultimately comes from the Germanic (Frankish) minority of words in French, and seems to be related to Middle High German hurten "run at, collide" and Old Norse hrutr "ram." The sense of "injury" in hurt is a purely English development; its original sense of "knock" died out in the 1600s, but it is preserved in hurtle.