The readers speak:

"Dear Bob," begins one letter, from the top of the stack, "Re: 'How to hang up on someone without being rude,' I'm surprised at you!

"The above statement is, in my opinion, a contradiction in terms. No matter how one does it, hanging up on someone is rude. Where are your manners? Except in the case of an obscene call, I see no reason to hang up on anyone. Even with a persistent salesperson, I have found that a firm, 'I'm sorry, I'm not interested in that,' works well and is infinitely more gracious than feigning telephone failure.

"As a receptionist in the Senate, with almost two years' experience 'on the phones,' I have never intentionally hung up on anyone, and not for the lack of crackpot constituent callers, either. My mother raised me better than that . . . .

"Please don't encourage rudeness. Goodness knows, there's enough boorishness already in the world.

"(Signed) A faithful reader, who shall remain anonymous because of her 'crackpot constituent' remark!"

I can't disagree with you in principle, Faithful Reader, and in fact, I hardly ever disagree with you in practice. So kind am I, usually, that my family calls me The Diplomat. That means I'm the only Levey who can talk to 17 consecutive third cousins at a family wedding without getting, or seeming to get, bored.

But in the business world, I find I have to reserve the right to hang up on people. You think crackpots only call senators? I suspect you'd be shocked by some of my regulars -- the lady who wants me to advocate an American invasion of Iran, the guy who calls to tell me every racist joke he's just heard, the other guy who insists that I'm really Walter Winchell writing under an assumed name.

With fruitcakes like these, Faithful Reader, I submit that the issue isn't whether to hang up. It's how to do so diplomatically.

Reaching a little farther down in the stack, I discover a gibe from Irving Jurow of Chevy Chase.

"Year in, year out," he writes, "intellectuals as well as illiterates (but more often the former) persist in dishonoring the Bard by 'gilding the lily,' as you did in your column today.

"A plague upon you, Bob! You know very well he wrote . . . 'to gild refined gold, to paint the lily.'

Directly beneath Irving's letter was one from John Sequeira of Arlington, with a citation: Act four, scene two, of Shakespeare's "King John."

I'm defenseless on this one, fellas. I read "King John" in college, and I can remembering hmmmming to myself one cold night that, hey, I never knew you painted lilies. Thanks for the reminder.

"Recently you've been having mispronunciations sent in by your readers," said the next letter, written in bright red ink. "The mispronunciation I'd like to send in was said by an announcer on WETA on Monday. He was asking for contributions from Maryland, D.C. and Vir-GIN-E-A.

"Well, I am an 11-year-old and I object," says Katie Winn of Alexandria. "I live in Vir-GIN-ya.

"I looked it up in the dictionary, and they have both pronunciations. But I still live in Vir-GIN-ya."

Right you are, Katie, at least up here in the northern part of the Old Dominion. But go down to Richmond sometime, and you'll hear Vuh-GIN-yuh.

I wouldn't try to correct a Richmonder, either. He'll tell you they've been pronouncing it that way since before your great-great-great-great grandfather was born.

And finally, from Coincidence Corner, this morsel, from Bill Canby of Baltimore:

"I guess you might call it 'A day late and a dollar short.'

"At this moment I am reading your column as it appears in The Washington Post for Friday, August 27, 1982.

"Your last comments were about McDonnell Douglas Aircraft. In it, you mention why the adoption of the symbols '707,' etc.

"You guessed it. The Maryland state lottery number last night was 707. The fourth time it has hit since the lottery's inception in 1976.

"Would it be too much to ask you to time your articles a little better. Like a day sooner?