Quite contrary to popular demand, I’m returning to the subject of phrases we use without really giving much thought to their meaning or indeed whether they mean anything at all – such as “Cheap at half the price”, the example I gave in my first post on this subject.
What brought me back to this subject was hearing someone refer to “false pretences”. It’s a very common phrase used by highly intelligent and articulate people, and even by me. The meaning is clear, so I suppose this is more of a tautology: could there ever be such as thing as “True pretences”?
Then, last night I was re-reading one of my favourite history books: The Common Stream by Rowland Parker, and came across the phrase “at the latter end of the thirteenth century.” Now it’s a great book and he’s a fluent, erudite, witty writer – but did the thirteenth century have a “former end”? I suppose you could call the start of the thirteenth century the former end, but if I had been his editor I might have tentatively suggested that he delete the word “latter”. To which he might have very reasonably have asked, “Haven’t you got anything better to do?”