Most newspaper people work hard to report events accurately, evaluate trends perceptively and offer editorial opinion without bias. We try to write grammatically and with clarity.
But alas! Newsmen are prey to the same human frailties that cause errors to be made by pollsters, labor leaders, basketball referees, race track handicappers, marriage counselors and politicians.
To illustrate, let me begin by citing an error of my very onw. In a recent column, I likened patrons of dogfighting to blood-thirsty Romans who flashed the thumbs-down signal that brought death to fallen gladiators in the Colosseum 1900 years ago. Herbert G. (Paddy) King, former United Press foreign correspondent, took exception.
"No," he said faltly. "The opposite is true. when a gladiator fell, the presiding official would ask the mob, 'Shall we let him have it?'
"If the mob thought the man had fought well, they turned thumbs down on the proposal -- and the man lived. Thumbs up meant, 'Yes, knock him off!"
"People talk about Nero throwing Christians to the lions in the Colosseum. That is also wrong. Nero died in A.D. 68. The Colosseum was inaugurated by Titus in A.D. 80."
That was a little before my time, Paddy, inasmuch as I wasn't hired by The Washington Post until A.D. 81.
But to make doubly sure of my facts I looked up the Colosseum in an encyclopedia and that's why I wrote "1900 years ago." My problem was that I failed to make sure whether thumbs up meant the gladiator lived or died.
I was like a delegate voting on a substitute amendment to a minority report on a revised alternative to a platform plank couched in negative language. Will the chair please tell us one more time what a"Yes" vote means and what a "No" vote means?
Incidentally, Paddy also has a comment on an item in last Sunday's Food Section. The headline and story both made reference to "Gilding the Lily." s
Says Paddy, "Shakespeare said nothing of the kind. He wrote, "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet . . .' etc."
I H. Jurow of Chevy Chase agreed with Paddy and asked why Shakespeare appears to be misquoted more than any other writer.
The answer to that question seems obvious. Shakespeare is more frequently quoted, therefore more frequently mis quoted.
A recent article in Outlook said that the Roosevelt (on 16th Street between V and W) "was one of the city's grand hotels for many years after its construction in 1919. Teddy Roosevelt and his family lived across the street."
Somehow I feel impelled to believe the District Liner who immediately informed me: "The Roosevelt was constructed in 1919, the year TR died in his home on Long Island. He never lived on 16th between V and W.In his excellent book, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,' Edmund Morris lists the addresses occupied by TR." What impels me to believe that TR didn't live across the street from the Roosevelt Hotel is, I think, the signature on the letter: "Cornelius Van S. Roosevelt."
Last Monday's Washington Business section included a story about the baby-outfitting business. Carmen Johnson was surprised to see a reference to "passifiers," a spelling that I hope will send chills up the spines of all the editors, copy editors and proof-readers who failed to catch it.
Incidentally, the headline on that story called the specialty stores for babies boutiques, a word that used to refer to small shops (or small departments in large stores) where fashionable and expensive clothing is sold. Today's boutique handles almost any kind of merchandise. I have no objection to the expanded meaning of the word, but some purists may.
Martha Benenson of Silver Spring and Meredith R. Davis of Burke sent me clippings of the same op-ed column about Nancy Reagan, with the same passage underlined: "The second wife, Nancy, was the only child of a mother who was divorced in her infancy." Well, that's what comes of infant marriages, I guess.
Marion Hayes also took objection to an op-ed column. This one referred to "the Carter adminstiration's torturou, circuitous diplomatic effort" to get the hostages transferred.
I am not sure what the writer meant so I can have no opinion about whether he expressed himself properly. Torurous refers to pain, agony, anguish. Tortuous means full of twists and turns, devious, circuitous.
If the writer meant our diplomatic effort was torture to him, he was right. If he meant it was a circuitous effort, there was no need to say it was both tortuous and circuitous, unless he's being paid by the word.
P.S.: Rulon Walker objects to the use of the phrase "40 times cheaper" by one of the reporters on "60 Minutes," and wants to know what this means.
I think it means that if we're going to include broadcasters in our columns about usage we'll need a lot more space.