The other day I was writing a short piece – can’t remember what or why –when I found myself using the word “notwithstanding”. As I typed it, I thought: is that still in current use? It’s a completely familiar word, which I have used all my life, but as in society and in language, things are changing so rapidly now that one can’t keep up. I told myself to keep a lookout for “notwithstanding”, and note its frequency.

Lo and behold, almost at once a signal, a puff of smoke, floats up from the verbal jungle to suggest I’m on an interesting trail. It appears in the latest (February 2021) issue of The Art Newspaper  – where I expect exemplary literacy (and have often been disappointed, it must be said). Someone – the Editor herself, indeed – is discussing the problems that have hovered around the painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, which sold for a colossal sum in 2017. She quotes a Renaissance author, and goes on to write: ‘Not with-standing this contemporary observation …’

Bingo! It’s clear that the writer was not familiar with the word she has chosen to use, though it’s obviously one that lurks ready for use at the back of her mind. It has been a single word, no hyphens, since the late middle ages. Rather than recognising that this is an independent word with a signification only distantly related to the meanings of its component parts, she has turned it into a phrase, and separated the negative “not” from a verb that, it appears, she is also unfamiliar with.