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It’s easy to blunt the cutting edge of words; it’s much harder to sharpen them again. It was the advertisement in the Daily Telegraph that brought this to mind. “Own a replica of a famous football stadium”, it enticed its readers.

Many people — and many dictionaries — still regard replica in the same way as the entry in the 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. That says firmly that a replica is properly an exact copy of a work of art made by the original artist, and adds: “It is this proper sense that alone makes the foreign word replica worth maintaining in English by the side of the abundant English words for copies or duplicates”.

In particular, the definition implies that a replica is the same size as the original, which is why — in common, I would guess, with other readers — the advertisement brought me to a dead stop. How many of us, after all, have the rolling acres to accommodate a football stadium, even at the knock-down price of sixty quid?

The current edition of Chambers agrees with Fowler, as do the Encarta World Dictionary, the Penguin English Dictionary and several American works. But the New Oxford Dictionary of English supports the advertisement copywriter all the way. It says with its usual authority that a replica “is an exact copy or model of something, especially on a smaller scale”. Note model and smaller scale. To emphasise the point, it cites “a replica of the Empire State Building” as an example of the sense. Readers with an over-developed sense of logic might contest exact, since no model can ever be a truly exact copy of an original so much larger, but the idea is clear enough.

Oxford Dictionaries may be unusual at the moment in giving this changed sense, but they are very much in touch with current usage. A recent report about banning replica guns in Britain pointed out a problem with definition: did the ban include small-scale replicas as well as full-sized ones? This sense of replica is being seen more and more, and a word that once had a precise meaning and function is reduced by sloppy writers to an elegant alternative to model. It’s sad to see it suffer such indignity.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 31 Mar 2001