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Jack Smith

He Shot an Error Into the Air . . .

January 06, 1988|Jack Smith

My recent summary of the errors I made in 1987 was evidently premature. I am now accused by several readers of another one that appeared too late to classify. I feel obliged to reopen the subject if only because of the quality of the complaints.

My alleged solecism was using the word hypothecate in the sense of hypothesize . (I had written that a professor had hypothecated several cases in which a person could escape the discomfort of writing a dishonest letter of recommendation by resorting to ambiguity.)

"A total, unambiguous, inescapable, foot-on-a-banana-peel mistake," writes Bernard Weissman, leaving me little room to wriggle through. "To hypothecate is to pledge; to hypothesize is to assume."

Expressing pain at having to rebuke me, Weissman excuses himself by recalling how Joseph Epstein, editor of American Scholar, excused himself, in an essay called "Your Basic Language Snob," for finding errors in Shakespeare, Burke and Eliot.

Epstein explained: "Believe me, I don't enjoy feeling superior to Shakespeare, Burke, and Eliot, yet what is a man of serious standards to do?"

Also motivated by his serious standards, I suppose, is my friend Richard F. C. Hayden, a retired judge of the Superior Court. "I would have 'given security,' " he says, "that I would never fall into one of your verbal traps. But it appears I am only your 'pawn.' "

Judge Hayden's playful use of "security" and "pawn" is obviously meant to illustrate the meaning of hypothecate --"to pledge (property) to another as security. . . ."

"Don't feel bad," writes R. A. Moore of Palos Verdes Estates. "I first heard it ( hypothecate ) misused in the same fashion 25 years ago by a Caltech Ph.D. in physics."

Rather like Weissman, Robert C. Mason of Simi Valley modestly excuses his complaint: "Of course, this kind of errant pedantry is only found among those of us who work in real estate finance and are likely to know the difference. A friend told me that the error is now so common that he found a dictionary that allowed hypothecate and hypothesize to be used interchangeably, but I haven't found it myself."

Evidently Mason didn't look very hard. The New World Dictionary (which is used by The Times) gives meaning 2 of hypothecate as "same as hypothesize "; Webster's Ninth New Collegiate gives meaning 2 as hypothesize ; so does Webster's Third International (1961).

Always ready to admit my errors, I would have supposed that hypothecate was once limited to the legal meaning, but through misuse had also come to mean hypothesize , as fortuitously has come to mean fortunately as well as by chance . However, I notice that both hypothecate and hypothesize are derived from the same word--the Greek hypotithenai , meaning to put under, or suppose.

To avoid ambiguity, however, I agree with my critics that hypothecate perhaps ought to be limited to pledge , and hypothesize to assume .

I'm not conceding, though. I have been too quick to admit alleged errors only to find out that I was right all along.

You may recall that back in November, in hypothecating a movie scene, I had a man leave a cab at Sunset and Selma, in Hollywood. I happened to be in Hollywood a day or two later and was chagrined to find that Sunset and Selma were parallel. When the complaints began to flood in, I caved.

"Several readers," I wrote, "were sharp enough to notice that my imaginary hero paid off a cab at the equally imaginary intersection of Sunset and Selma in Hollywood."

Came the deluge. (That is not an original phrase.)

I now have at least two dozen letters, some including maps, advising me that Sunset and Selma do indeed meet.

"Some 30 paces east of the spooky old Chateau Marmont is the intersection of Selma and Sunset Boulevard," wrote Steven Gerischer. "Though it is not much of an intersection, the owner of the liquor store on that corner might resent that you have slotted his parking lot in the Twilight Zone. . . . And directly across Sunset from Selma looking south is where the infamous Garden of Allah used to stand. . . ."

"Check your Thomas Guide," wrote G. Wolf. "One block west of Laurel Canyon on Sunset is Selma--cutting smartly between the Coconut Teaser and the Liquor Locker. Hooray for Hollywood!"

Live and learn. (That's not original, either.)

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