Security and safety and more...

Security and safety

no ironsReturning after a regrettably long absence I would like to mention something that I saw on Trip Adviser. A hotel in Spain was replying to a customer who had complained that the hotel didn’t have irons for hire. The response was that this was the hotel’s policy ‘for security reasons’.

Clearly they mean safety, not security; there is an obvious fire risk in hotel guests using irons in their rooms. The root of the problem is that Spanish seguridad covers two concepts that are clearly differentiated in English.

As I say in A Guide to English Language Usage:

A Guide to English Language Usage, Peter Harvey, Lavengro BooksBoth of these are to do with protection from danger.

Safety is protection from natural risks: The flooded river threatened the village’s safety; or unintentional man‑made dangers: safety at work; the safety of drugs. Note the endings of the abstract nouns: safety but unsafeness.

Security is protection against deliberate human activity: The company’s security department is investigating the theft; A security guard is on duty at the factory all night.

Safety regulations ensure that an aeroplane can fly with the minimum risk of mechanical or human failure. Security staff ensure that terrorists do not board the plane. Safety at work refers to physical safety in the workplace; job security is the certainty that you will not lose your job.

A security is a name for a financial instrument such as a share certificate. Security for a loan is the valuable object that is offered as a guarantee of repayment.

And more succinctly in Great English Mistakes:

Great English Mistakes, Peter Harvey, Lavengro BooksThe Spanish word seguridad corresponds to two different but connected ideas in English. Safety tells us whether a thing is physically safe. Security is related to prevention of risk from human activity. So in an airport the safety check makes sure that the wings will not fall off the plane and the security check makes sure that no bombs are on board the plane. Sometimes seguridad has to be translated as safety and security in English.


For information about these books, visit the Lavengro Books website.






An American-British usage experiment

At Glossophilia Louise asks for comments on these sentences. It’s easy to see which way this is heading but as my comment is there I will say no more here, for now at least.

A) “Looking at the three designs, I was most drawn to the round one that bled outside the page border; however, I liked the square one too.”

B) “Looking at the three designs, I was most drawn to the round one which bled outside the page border; however, I liked the square one too.”

C) “Looking at the three designs, I was most drawn to the round one, that bled outside the page border; however, I liked the square one too.”

D) “Looking at the three designs, I was most drawn to the round one, which bled outside the page border; however, I liked the square one too.”


Dwarfs and the Guardian

One of 17

It is no secret that I dislike apostrophes and would abolish them if I had the power to do so. Hyphens, on the other hand, are a different matter. They have a useful purpose in indicating compound words. A Spanish-English dictionary is one that describes the two languages while a Spanish English teacher is a person of Spanish nationality who teaches the English language.

Hyphens seem to be disappearing. I regret this. However, they are commonly used to combine numbers and units: a 20-tonne lorry, a 40-year-old woman. Somehow something went wrong in the Guardian and we have this splendid correction:

An unwanted hyphen, introduced during the editing process, had us claiming in our print edition that the Villa Valmarana ai Nani in Vicenza, Italy, was “named for the 17-stone ‘nani’, or dwarfs, that surround the home” To clarify: there are 17 dwarf statues surrounding the villa, they are made of stone, and we’re not sure how much they weigh.

People outside the UK may not understand the point. In the system of imperial (sic) weights and measures, which is still commonly used there, a stone is equivalent to 14 pounds. That is pounds weight, not the country’s currency of pounds sterling. Seventeen stone is about 108 kg – rather a lot for a dwarf! The imperial system of weights as used in the UK (it is different in the USA) is:

16 ounces (oz) = 1 pound (lb)
14 lb = 1 stone (st)
2 st = 1 quarter (qr)
4 qr = 1 hundredweight (cwt)
20 cwt = 1 ton

An imperial ton is thus 2,240 lb (believe me, I learnt it all by heart at school along with rods, poles and perches for measuring land, and a mile is 1,760 yards, 5,280 feet or 63,360 inches). Coincidentally but conveniently, the metric tonne of 1,000 kg is equivalent to 2,205 lb. The two words ton and tonne are distinguished in spelling but are both pronounced /tVn/.

This is the avoirdupois system. Precious metals are weighed in the Troy system, where a pound is 12 pounces or 5,760 grains.

There is no likelihood of the UK adopting the metric system in any foreseeable future.

The plural of dwarf
The standard plural is dwarfs. J. R. R. Tolkien used dwarves in his books. According to Wikipedia:

The original editor of The Hobbit “corrected” Tolkien’s plural dwarves to dwarfs, as did the editor of the Puffin paperback edition of The Hobbit. According to Tolkien, the “real ‘historical’” plural of dwarf is dwarrows or dwerrows. He referred to dwarves as “a piece of private bad grammar”. In Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings it is explained that if we still spoke of dwarves regularly, English might have retained a special plural for the word dwarf as with goosegeese. Despite Tolkien’s fondness for it, the form dwarrow only appears in his writing as Dwarrowdelf, a name for Moria.

Tolkien used Dwarves, instead, which corresponds with Elf and Elves. In this matter, one has to consider the fact that the etymological development of the term dwarf differs from the similar-sounding word scarf (plural scarves). The English word is related to old Norse dvergr, which, in the other case, would have had the form dvorgr. But this word was never recorded, and the f/g-emendation (English/Norse) dates further back in language history.

Connoisseurs of this arcane subject will appreciate the alternating double and single quotation marks in nested quotations in both the above pieces from the Guardian and Wikipedia.

Image from


Why Christmas


The other day I went to a carol concert here in Barcelona. It finished with White Christmas – or it should have, but this is what we got:

I'm dreaming of a why Christmas
With every Christmas card I wry
May your days be merry and brigh
And may all your Christmases be why.

It’s the final-consonant problem of course. Native English choirs pride themselves on all hitting the sound at the same instant. However, Catalan does have words that end with t, unlike Spanish, which has no words ending with the airway obstructed or the mouth closed.

Or so I thought till I went to YouTube and found that Bing Crosby misses the t’s too.

So what? Happy Christmas to those who celebrate it, and enjoy yourselves anyway to those who don’t.

I have been otherwise occupied in the last few months. I hope to resume normal service in the New Year.




Outstanding is an ambiguous word. Something that stands out is different from the rest. An outstanding result is an extraordinary one, and the word is specifically positive; on its own it implies excellence. But something that is a matter that still has to be dealt with or a debt that has not been paid is also said to be outstanding.

A similar word is overlook. A hotel room can overlook the sea or you can overlook (i.e. ignore) a mistake that someone has made. The basic meaning is the same but in one case by looking out the sea you can see it from above while on the other by figuratively looking over a mistake at something else you do not see what is below you.


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