Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Mysterious Swathe

Swathes, as any fule kno, are either vast or cut, almost never both. It's one of those strange words that probably means something but nobody really knows what, which is why it is so beloved of journalists. It sits upon the page like a smudge or the grey spot in an old man's eyesight. A company owns vast swathes of something and as long as one doesn't concentrate too hard one can satisfy oneself that the company probably has an awful lot. 'That company', one can say knowledgably, 'owns swathes of land. Swathes.' And if your interlocutor is so impertinent as to ask how much that is one can frown wisely. 'Vast, I should say. Almost certainly vast.'

I confess that I had absolutely no idea what a swathe was until a couple of minutes ago. I had even managed to live a fairly happy life in this state of porcine ignorance. But happiness is overrated so I looked it up and discovered that a swathe can definitely be cut. Indeed, it has to be cut. Unfortunately, though, it can't be vast, which I feel will be a blow to British journalism.

A swathe is that area of grass that can be cut with a single stroke of a scythe. I have not subjected this to empirical experiment, of which I disapprove, but even assuming quite long arms and the biggest scythe that could still reasonably be considered wieldy I can't really see that coming to much more than ten feet across. A swathe can also be a line cut through a field by single scythe-wielding rustic. So it could be quite long, but its lack of width, I fear, must disqualify it from the label of vast.

I admit that I felt a little disappointed at how small a swathe really was. I had hoped that it would at least be a few acres, maybe even a bovate. However, I was able to console myself that the swathes of countryside that today's Telegraph told me would be destroyed are not that important at all. And the British army will hardly even notice the cuts suggested in today's Express. So all in all I consider the dwindling of the swathe a Good Thing For Britain.

A reverse of this situation applies to the humble-sounding peck, as in "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper" or "You'll eat a peck of dirt before you die." A peck is not, as one might fondly have thought, the amount that a sparrow can fit in its mouth. A peck is two gallons and can even mean simply "a very large amount", which makes Peter Piper's feat of pickled pepper picking much more tiring.

The hidden human cost of journalistic cliche

1 comment:

  1. The idea of cutting swathes through something is much more vivid when you imagine it being done with a scythe. But I think you are being too harsh on the "vast" point. According to Merriam Webster, a swathe can also mean a "long broad strip or belt" - which might, if you were being generous, be considered vast.