The man in the street is expert at one thing and that is the common language, and any writer will swear in court that you cannot fool the ordinary citizen in that particular field.

This is why politicians love statistics so much. The common man is shaky in mathematics and suspects figures as the probable murmuring of the devil. But when it comes to English, he is a master of it in its most profound reaches. From birth on, the language has surrounded him every day. Before he could walk very well he was beginning the startling achievement of speech. He talks and listens far more often than he eats or has sex -- activities accounted popular, but hardly so generally mastered or so endlessly practiced as language.

Nobody with the brains of a duck, for example, will try to argue with Americans that the unspoken word rhyming with "rich" is "witch."

Now recently Vice President George Bush was heard to say -- in a casual offhand way, not intending to be overheard or to make a grand pronouncement -- that he had intended to kick a little ass in his debate with his opponent.

For several days I waited, hopeful he would say his statement was misquoted, and that what he really said was, "I hope because of the debates she does not miss mass."

So far as I know, he has let the original stand. Will he alter it to "rick grass," "give sass," or "flick bass"? None of these would make any sense, but they're something his wife might suggest.

One of the ultimate pleasures of American citizenship is the nearly daily opportunity to behold a politician of any party making a royal jackass of himself. And how wonderful the election is still weeks away.

Bush has made much of his refusal to apologize to another politician on the matter of Marines dying in Lebanon in shame. The record shows that nothing was said about Marines dying in shame. What was said was that American policy in Lebanon led to humiliation.

Bush has argued there is no difference between saying a policy leads to national humiliation and saying American military men died in shame.

He says he consulted the American Heritage Dictionary to find the word shame given to illustrate the meaning of humiliation.

If he says he looked it up, I don't challenge it, though he does not look like the dictionary type to me. The particular dictionary he used is the one that misspelled Clare Boothe Luce's name in its entry for her, and is the dictionary that got dromedaries and camels mixed up as well, which shows dictionaries can be flat wrong, and even the best dictionary does not claim to substitute for normal brains.

He knows, despite his protestations, that to say soldiers died in shame is different from saying a government policy leads to humiliation.

When a cheap shot fails, a seasoned politician usually knows how to get out cheaply, but for the innocent and inept I shall spell it out:

"I was wrong when I claimed my opponent said our troops died in shame. I am a guy of the rough-and-tumble world of politics. I am not a polished drawing-room orator. He made me mad when he said our policy led to humiliation -- this seemed to me to ride brutally over the idealism that led us to intervene in Lebanon, a course believed in by most Americans. In obedience to that idealistic policy a number of the finest Americans lost their lives, and this was terrible. I should never have stated that the Democratic candidate said they died in shame. I feel some criticism of American idealism very strongly, and in the heat of argument I may overstate or incorrectly state a fact, as I did here. I'm sorry and I apologize. I do not apologize, though, for a policy that our government believed was required of us as decent men."

Or, if that is too long to memorize, then this:

"My anger at his constant carping made me say something wrong. I misquoted him. He complained of our policy and never said our men died in shame. I am dumb, sometimes, and I was then. I apologize to him."

Or, if that is a little too true to be palatable to any politician, then this, which has the advantage of a whopping misstatement or two and which sounds splendid:

"I goofed. I misquoted Mr. Mondale. I meant him no harm, and never dreamed of accusing him of saying there was anything shameful in our men's death. I did not think that interpretation might be put on my charge, but of course it can, and for this I am very sorry and offer my sincerest apology."

Or, if you want to live dangerously and try the bald truth (which may yet be effective in rare cases):

"I was dumb. I was wrong."

Mrs. Bush could then come on and say:

"The Democratic candidate is not a bitch. She makes me mad, but that is not altogether or precisely the same thing. I am sorry for my vulgar expression. My mother would wallop me and I'd deserve it."

These recommended responses have the merit of being understandable. None of them would make the speaker sound like an imbecile, merely a fallible human sorry for a gaffe.

The main thing for a woman to avoid in criticizing another woman is the charge of, well, it rhymes with richiness. That is why women almost never provide the word themselves, leaving it to men. Who, in the heat of etc., etc.

When you ram your foot in your mouth it is often prudent to get it out with as little general laughter as possible. People are too clever by half, if you ask me, and you make no hay by pretending they're so stupid they don't comprehend what you've said. The awful failing of language (as distinct from statistics or music or mathematical formulas, which are quite safe) is that the audience is altogether too skilled in it, and may see exactly what you mean. For a politician, that can be O horrible.