One of the subtleties of the English language that got lost in the whole debate over the Equal Rights Amendment is the fact that the words "equal" and "same" have different meanings. The idea was to make men and women equal, not to proclaim them to be the same. What brings this to mind was something I saw the other morning. Actually, it was someone I saw--someone I don't even know.

He was wearing an earring.

For the life of me, I have no idea why any man would want to puncture a hole in his earlobe and run around with a little gold trinket dangling out of it. I know perfectly well, of course, why women do it. It is a known fact that earrings are attractive on women. In fact, some women do not believe they are fully dressed without them.

Earrings have a very clear role, in my mind at least, on women. They have no role, in my mind, on men. Men and women are simply not the same. I am told that this fad began in the gay community and then crossed over into the straight community by way of the college campuses, but unfortunately it has not remained on campus. You can chalk it up to social conditioning, or whatever, but it is my considered opinion that earrings on men are downright weird looking.

The man I saw this morning was not the first man I have seen wearing an earring recently. Nor is this the first time I have considered this burning issue.

Not too long ago, my son the teen-ager stopped by the house he lives in and found me in the kitchen. "Mom," he said. "I have a question for you. And I don't want you to go flying off the handle. Just listen to me for a minute before you answer."

That's the kind of preamble he usually reserves for various schemes to enhance his financial holdings at the expense of mine. I was immediately suspicious.

"What do you want?"

"I don't want anything. Just listen to me."

"I'm listening."

"What would you say if I got one ear pierced so I could wear an earring?"

"I would say it's been nice knowing you."

I am happy to report that he had the good judgment not to pursue the earring question any further. He did point out, however, that a number of his friends had had their ears pierced at the beach this summer. I suggested he change friends.

Not long after that, I discovered he was telling the truth. I found myself talking with a friend of his whom I have known and liked for six years. Moments before, this particular young man had been lavishly honored for his athletic prowess. Within days he would begin his freshman year at one of the toughest colleges in the country. This is a young man whom I have always admired, and that afternoon we were having a pleasant conversation about his future. I was having trouble, however, looking him in the eye. I kept looking at his left ear.

He was wearing an earring.

I nearly told him he'd ruined his life.

Yesterday, the news came out of San Antonio, Tex., that the Army has decided to allow women soldiers to wear studs, the tiny round gold earrings that unobtrusively decorate the earlobs of pierced ears. This has upset at least one soldier who had his left ear pierced two months ago. The permissive earring policy applies only to women soldiers, and he's unhappy because he can only wear earrings off duty.

This, of course, raises an interesting theoretical question. If the Equal Rights Amendment had been passed, would it be legal for the Army to discriminate in its earring policy? I can hear Phyllis Schlafly now: "If ERA were in the constitution, the Army would be forced to allow both men and women to wear stud earrings while on duty!" Presumably the earring fad will fade away before the Army has to send men into combat wearing earrings.

My son thinks I am being old-fashioned and intolerant. This is all a healthy form of youthful rebellion, as far as he's concerned, and he's not above pointing out the fact that as a member of the generation that took rebellion to a high art form, I ought to be tolerant of his generation's excesses. "Face it, Mom," he said the other night, "if this were the late '60s and you were a man you'd have long hair." He has a point there, but if the earring fad is a symptom, I suspect my generation is about to come in for one of the more trying periods of adulthood. We survived the historic rebellion of our own youth.

Now, heaven help us, we face that of our children.