Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

FORD'S new motor-car is to be called the Focus, they have announced proudly. There is a lot of focusing around, these days. Mr Blair relies on so-called `focus groups' to tell him what ordinary people's concerns might be.

There is no accounting for the motor trade's onomastic whims. Cortina means 'a curtain'; why is that a good name for a car? But I wonder how far the clever men at Ford looked into the ramifications of the venerable word focus. Kepler used it in a book he wrote in Latin in 1604 to mean something to do with parabolas which I do not quite understand. By 1685, Boyle, of Boyle's Law, was using it in English to mean `the burning point of a lens'. But the year before that, it was also being used in English to mean `the principal seat in the body of a disease'. Imagine the proud new owner of a Ford inviting his girlfriend: `Come on, Lorraine, let's go for a spin in my principal seat of disease.'

In classical Latin, focus meant 'a funeral pyre', in addition to its basic meaning of 'a hearth'. By the iron laws of philology, focus in Latin became foyer in French. (The great lexicographer Littre points out that it may be pronounced either fwoy-e or foy-e, so there is no need to be embarrassed about referring in English to the lobby of a theatre as a foyer to rhyme with boy-eh. …

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