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The Record Stands--Despite Some Attempts to Topple It

April 05, 1993|JACK SMITH | Jack Smith's column is published on Mondays.

I was chagrined the other day to find a letter from a sometime correspondent and critic, Jere Stuart French of Claremont, pointing out a supposed error of mine in a column dated Dec. 7, 1992.

I was dismayed to find that I had fallen so far behind in my correspondence, especially since I had managed to conclude 1992 with my record of only two or fewer errors a year intact. Mr. French's letter seemed to threaten that record.

"Your article," he wrote, "contains a misspelled word. OK, it's nit-picking and probably not your error, but the famous nightclub (Cocoanut Grove), like the Marx Brother movie, should have been spelled coconut . There is no A in the word as it is not derived from hot chocolate but from the scientific name cocos and the original Spanish word coco .

"While we're at it, the word cocoa is itself an error which resulted from someone's transposing of the O 's and A 's in cacao. So the word cocoanut is really a double error."

Alas, Mr. French's erudition seems to have obscured the fact. Erroneous or not, the night club that brought worldwide fame to the now-defunct Ambassador Hotel for half a century was the Cocoanut Grove.

Instead of consulting his dictionaries, Mr. French should have consulted the legend. In "Out With the Stars: Hollywood Night Life in the Golden Era," the club is spelled Cocoanut throughout and a photograph of a sign over the Wilshire Boulevard entrance clearly shows that spelling.

Even more conclusive, if possible, is Margaret Burk's splashy "Are the Stars Out Tonight? A Story of the Famous Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove." The word is Cocoanut throughout, and it is spelled out in lights in a photograph of the entrance sign.

The Grove was the playpen of the stars in the age of glamour. Everybody who was anybody turned up there. Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Ronald Colman, Claudette Colbert, Bill Powell, Lena Horne, Maurice Chevalier, Elizabeth Taylor--they all appeared at the Grove to be seen, and I doubt that any of them ever realized that the name was spelled wrong.

(My wife and I will always have fond memories of the Ambassador. Though we stayed at an inexpensive, nearby hotel on Eighth Street on our wedding night, we actually walked through the Ambassador Hotel and peeked into the Grove the next day. It was a thrill.)

Alas, however, in that same pile of neglected mail I find a card from J. L. Kaufman pointing out what he calls two errors I made in a column last November about the La Brea Tar Pits. Mr. Kaufman notes that I put horns on the mastodon, whereas those protuberances are properly called tusks . Furthermore, Mr. Kaufman alleged, I referred to the saber-toothed cat's 10-inch teeth as incisors, whereas they are properly called cuspids.

On the first count I plead innocent. According to the dictionary, a horn is "a hard, hollow, bony or keratinous permanent projection that grows on the head of various hoofed animals. . . ." So a tusk is a horn.

I cannot worm out of the second count. A cuspid, the dictionary tells me, is a "tooth with one cusp; a canine tooth." Obviously, the saber-toothed cat's saber tooth is a cuspid or canine tooth. An incisor is a cutting tooth, not a ripping tooth.

So there you are. I did make two errors last year after all. (I've forgotten what the other one was.)

I also am obliged to confess that I have already committed one error this year, and it was on Monday, Feb. 1, the day after the Super Bowl game in the Rose Bowl.

Bill Dwyre, our sports editor, had asked me to attend the game, sit in the press box and write a story about the game, calling on my old skills as a sportswriter.

As I said, it was the first time I had sat in a press box since I covered a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and their Bakersfield farm club in 1938. So I was a little rusty, but that was no excuse for the error I made.

The Dallas Cowboys, you may recall, defeated the Buffalo Bills by the embarrassing score of 52-17. I reported that the Buffalo quarterback, Jim Kelly, was injured and forced to retire from the game in the third quarter. In fact, Mr. Kelly left the game in the second quarter. Evidently, throughout the entire half-time period, I was unaware that Mr. Kelly had retired. (I'm sorry to say that the signature of the man who pointed this out to me was illegible, which was not my fault.)

Anyway, I might note that I did not make as many errors as the Buffalo Bills did.

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