Words

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Dear Reader,

I have been interested to read letters from readers deploring the wrong use of the English language, with particular reference to the word unique, in the September and October issues of MOTOR SPORT. I was brought up to believe that ‘unique’ is just that, there being no qualifications to unique. ‘Most unique’, ‘Quite unique’, ‘Very unique’ even ‘Almost unique’ are expressions that make me curl up. Having been involved with two unique racing cars over the years the situation has often arisen where I have been forced to correct someone. The most embarrassing was at a VSCC race meeting where the racing car I was messing about with was unique. It was the only one ever built and was still very much as built by the factory.

A man came to look at it and said: “This must be almost unique,” to which I replied: “No,” whereupon he looked at me a bit sideways and said: “But surely they only made one of these?” “You are absolutely correct, which is why it is not almost unique. It is unique”. Before either of us could continue the conversation his wife, who was standing by him, said: “There you are, I keep telling you, unique is unique, there are no degrees of being unique.” While I got on with my fettling they wandered away having a good old family argument between themselves and I wished I hadn’t said anything, for I think I spoiled his day.

Then there were the people who opened a conversation with “This car must be unique,” and when I asked “Why?” they replied, “Well, it is the only one the factory made,” obviously being quite knowledgeable about the car, but my answer had to be: “There is no question of this car must-be-unique, it is unique and there needn’t be any qualifications about it.” Mind you, my fetish about the word unique is not the best way of making friends and influencing people, though I am sure that VSCC member’s wife would have been my friend for life.

I find words are really quite simple and straightforward things to use, though some people go out of their way to complicate things. If I look at a 250F Maserati that is looking like a 1957 Grand Prix car and I know it was not built in the Modena factory, then, in my simple language, it is a fake. The same goes for any other make of car or motorcycle. The motor trade is notorious for thinking up words other than fake to try and present an air of respectability and honesty, while the Auction House catalogue writers deserve medals for their use of anything but the simple straightforward word. Every month in our advertising pages there are fake cars for sale described in glowing terms of how accurate a copy it is of a well-known historic car, some even suggesting with an almost naive air of honesty, that their fake car is actually better than the original because it is brand new.

I suppose most of us have particular words that either give pleasure or to which we object strongly, especially if we have been in the “word game” for a long while. More years ago than I care to remember the word entrepreneur was used in a slightly derogatory manner to describe someone who was involved in some sort of dodgy business. Nowadays it is used to describe someone who is a successful and smart business man, but I find it hard not to remember my early use of the word.

Sometimes I wonder if the meaning has actually changed! The mother of a very old friend of mine had a thing about abbreviations, and if either of us abbreviated a word we would get a severe reprimand and the correct full length word would be pronounced impeccably. Afterwards my friend would confide in me that his family motto was Abbrevs Avulge and explain away his mother’s fetish about abbreviations. He was the man who would say in all seriousness: “It’s unlucky to be superstitious.”

The actual spelling of words is full of more pitfalls than using words, especially racing driver’s names. It was years before I could spell Patrick Depaillier, Hermann Lang, or Rudolph Carracciola, and Gianclaudio Regazoni! Name titles are even worse, especially when someone gets himself knighted or changes his rank in the services. The problem about writing of the past is to decide which rank to use; the one someone had at the time you are writing about, or the one he finished up with.

Recently a famous old Sunbeam racing car was in the news and it was mentioned that it had held the Land Speed Record at one time. It was driven by the then Major Henry Segrave, but later he became Sir Henry Segrave, so which title do you use when talking about the record he broke with the old Sunbeam? Captain Archie Frazer Nash is a continual source of trouble, because in 1938 he changed his name officially from Frazer Nash to Frazer-Nash, with a hyphen. Do you backdate the hyphen to his birth or restrict it to anything about him after 1938?

Grand Prix races are another bone of contention that not enough people give enough serious thought to. The first race to use the title Grand Prix was the 1906 Grand Prix of the Automobile Club de France and there must be someone somewhere who knows exactly how many Grand Prix races have been held since that date, always assuming they can define a Grand Prix accurately. Recently there has been much talk about the forthcoming Australian Grand Prix being the 500th Grand Prix. Such a statement is so untrue that it is laughable. What is really meant is that the Australian Grand Prix of 1990 will be the 500th event to count in the FIA World Championship for Drivers which started in May 1950. But that does not make it the 500th World Championship Grand Prix, because for the first eleven years the Indianapolis 500 Mile race counted towards the FIA World Championship, and that race was always run to its own rules and not to Grand Prix rules, so it could never be considered to be a Grand Prix. To describe the Australian Grand Prix on November 4th as the 500th event in the FIA World Championship for Drivers series is fair enough, but it is nothing more than that, and even that is not really significant in the overall scene of motor racing that is soon approaching its 100th anniversary.

The first accepted motor race, as distinct from motoring competition, was the Paris to Bordeaux and back event held on June 13th 1895, which was won by Emile Levassor with a Panhard et Levassor car. In 1995 we can celebrate 100 years of motor racing, though not continuous as it officially stopped during some of the war years, and in the year 2006 we can celebrate 100 years of Grand Prix racing, with the same reservations about war years. 2006 may seem a long way off, but it is only 16 years and your small children will be clamouring to own their own motor car, if the world around them allows such a thing as private ownership by then. Sixteen years ago was 1974 when Emerson Fittipaldi was World Champion driving a McLaren and Regazzoni was his main adversary driving a Ferrari. Seems as if very little has changed over that period of time, so what chance of Ferrari supplying the car for the Champion in 2006. If the FIA Championship is your scene then it is worth recalling that a Ferrari driver was fifth in the championship in 1950, and won the Championship in 1952 and 1953. If Grand Prix racing is your scene then you will know that the name of Enzo Ferrari was not far away in 1925 and by 1929 the Scuderia Ferrari was a force to be reckoned with. Yours DSJ

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