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Jack Smith

To err is human, to forgive divine--words to live by when under fire from word-wise readers

December 19, 1985|JACK SMITH

William Safire writes a literate, engaging and somewhat erudite column on language for the New York Times. I say "somewhat erudite" because many of his readers are more erudite than he is.

Whenever Safire errs in discussing some grammatical point or the etymology of a certain word, he provokes a ton of letters from grammarians, scholars, classicists, linguists and ordinary nit-pickers correcting him and expressing their dismay at his ignorance.

He admits that his forte (pronounced fort, not for- tay ) "is capitalizing on my mistakes." He has published three books ("On Language," "What's the Good Word?" and "I Stand Corrected: More on Language") consisting of excerpts of his essays followed by pages of this enlightened correspondence.

In "I Stand Corrected," for example, he undertakes to reassure lesbians that they should have no objections to being called homosexual on the grounds that homo means man. He wrote: "If lesbians argue that homosexual should be limited to men, I would put up a feeble fight--arguing that the homo is the same as the man in mankind and covers women, too. . . ."

In response to this ill-informed opinion, Safire received "208 letters, six postcards and a telex" from people who know the difference between Latin and Greek derivations.

"Egad, sir," wired Christian P. Hansen of the Bronx, "did you ever take Greek? The homo in homosexual comes not from the Latin word meaning 'man,' but from the Greek homos , meaning 'same.' The most that the Latin homo and the English prefix homo have in common is that they are homonyms."

"Surely," wrote Taliafero Boatwright Jr. of Stonington, Conn., "you must have written that as a provocation, or come-on." To which Safire replied: "Would that I had."

I confess that I, too, capitalize on my mistakes. Whenever I err, I am inundated, like Safire, by letters from grammarians, scholars, classicists, linguists and ordinary nit-pickers, correcting me and expressing dismay at my ignorance. I am also, like Safire, accused sometimes of having erred deliberately as a come-on. I can only say, as he did, "Would that I had."

I am thinking of an error I made the other day that ranks, for ignorance and arrogance, with Safire's error on the etymology of homosexual .

Patricia Hill, Hermosa Beach bassoonist, had written to scold me for leaving out the bassoonist when I wrote about the women musicians in the Marine Band.

Showing a sensitive appreciation of my problem with esoteric nit-pickers, Ms. Hill recalled that the research team hired to ensure historical accuracy for the film "Cleopatra" had noted that the occupants of the Emperor's box at the Coliseum were shown eating grapes that were not grown in ancient times.

To which I responded: "May I point out that the amphitheater Ms. Hill refers to is spelled Colosseum, not Coliseum, like our own arena?" That was not only mean and pretentious, but, worse, it was wrong.

Among the readers who detected my error were Ken MacClelland of Van Nuys and Herb Hain, a colleague at The Times. Hain wrote:

"The building in Rome now known as the Colosseum, the ruins of which you have undoubtedly admired many times, was not erected until about 70 A.D., about 100 years after Caesar and Cleopatra.

"It is of course possible that they had an arena called the Colosseum in Rome in the days of Caesar, but I have my doubts. As I recall from my student days, Augustus, who succeeded Caesar, boasted that he 'found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.' Or words to that effect.

"Also, since Augustus was the first emperor, there was probably no emperor's box at whatever arena they used, at least not while Caesar was around, or Cleopatra, for that matter."

Cleopatra died in 30 BC. The Colosseum was started by the Emperor Vespasian in AD 78, more than a century later. If Julius Caesar ever took Cleopatra to the games in Rome, it would probably have been to the Circus Maximus, which he had rebuilt, and there would surely have been no emperor's box.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word colosseum can mean any ancient amphitheater. However, I do not consider that an honorable defense, since the Colosseum I had in mind was the famous Roman Colosseum--the familiar ruin of modern Rome--and I simply did not remember that it did not exist in Cleopatra's time.

I could just as easily cite Webster's Third International Dictionary to support Ms. Hill. With a dismaying lack of thoroughness, it gives only one definition for colosseum : coliseum. The American Heritage Dictionary defines Colosseum as "an amphitheater in Rome built by Vespasian and Titus (AD 75-80)."

I am all the more chagrined by my error in this affair because of a charming note from Ms. Hill.

"Knowledge can accumulate with the slow, stately march of scholarship, through the delightful gambols of curiosity . . . and by the abrupt remedy of public exposure. Gadzooks! Hoisted by my own pedant! My embarrassment is somewhat lessened (lessoned, as well) by sensing the cheerful pleasure you must have taken in picking a nit provided by one of your very own pack of persistent nit-pickers.

"It's been an enlightening exchange. Thank you for your attention to correctness in matters historical and orthographic and the gentleness of your touche. I assure you I shall never again misspell amphitheatre--either one of them."

I am afraid I wronged a very classy bassoonist, and I apologize.

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