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ROBIN ABCARIAN

OK, OK--It Was a Wretched Mistake

March 22, 1995|ROBIN ABCARIAN

At the risk of being accused of poaching on the intellectual turf of a man who has graced this page for so long it would be an insult even to try, let me just say that I don't plan to address my recent egregious, unforgivable, humongous, deeply disappointing and just plain stupid spelling error more than once.

The second reason I am allotting only one column to my mistake is that I intend not to make any more. The letters, faxes and phone calls are just too damn brutal. Even the poetry was nasty.

Before we delve into the details of today's extended moment of contrition, I must confess that my understanding of the issues that stir the bile of readers has been altered by my recent foray into the horrors of misspelling.

Had you asked as recently as last Tuesday which topics cause readers to write or call to express their fury, I would have enumerated the Big Three: abortion, immigration and gay rights. Reaction to last Wednesday's column (with its terrifyingly irresponsible mistake), however, forces a re-evaluation. Henceforth, my list will include the Big Three plus . . . Wretched Orthographic Errors That Make You Want to Retch.

By Monday, I had received 22 letters and postcards about my typo--including two "Goof Cards" from the Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature (SPELL)--five faxes and at least six phone calls.

The good news: People read the newspaper carefully.

The bad news: They wield blue pencils as they read.

*

In the interest of keeping my gaffes in perspective, I want to share with you a couple of doozies from my past. I hope you will agree that misspelling retch pales next to my neon blunders, and that my recent mistake in fact signals an improvement in the quality of my faux pas. (Spin doctoring: It's not just for politicians anymore!)

* Last year, I wrote that gay-bashing politicians such as Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Garden Grove) face neither "censure nor approbation," but are rewarded with reelection. Approbation means approval. I meant opprobrium, a synonym for disgrace or shame. I should have just written "disgrace or shame." On the plus side, no one seemed to notice but me.

* On the eve of the 1984 Olympics, I described the Beverly Hills mansion built by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as "Mayfair" instead of "Pickfair." Mayfair, of course, is a local grocery store, which prompted one editor to note that she had heard there was a really good produce section next to the tennis court.

* I once wrote that Grace Kelly was in the front row of a Paris fashion show bopping to the music, when I actually meant Grace Jones. How bad a mistake was it? Oh, much worse than you might imagine, for while Grace Jones is a sultry African American of Amazonian proportions, and Grace Kelly was a middle-aged blond Ice Princess . . . Kelly had already been dead five years. All I could offer in my defense was exhaustion--too much running around Paris trying to beg tickets from designers who didn't care if I covered their shows or not. The error did not make it into print, but when I returned to my office, my supportive, sensitive colleagues had taped giant pictures of both women above my desk. "Would you look at that!" I said, straining to repair my shredded dignity. "They have exactly the same nose!"

*

It would probably not matter to the many of you who sang out a collective "Nyah, nyah, nyah!" that I do in fact know the difference between wretch and retch, and that sometimes, under the pressure of a fast-approaching deadline, even a fastidious speller is prone to slips.

So I will not try to prove it.

Instead, I will commend those of you who care deeply about the state of the printed word and who tactfully and gently let me know how disappointed you were.

To those of you who felt the need to excoriate, humiliate and/or bludgeon the blunderer, I simply say that I understand. Like you, I am not immune to the blush of superiority that accompanies the discovery of someone else's stupidity.

Who among us has not experienced the thrill of watching "Wheel of Fortune" and screaming, "Pick the letter T, you stupid morons! It's 'Tempest in a teapot!' "

Still, I apologize. I will try not to misspell again. For the benefit of those who wish to see me suffer a special hell reserved for writers who mangle the language, I note that my father is an English professor. He reads the paper. And he has my unlisted phone number.

Need I say more?

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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