On June 15, 1992, Vice-President Dan Quayle corrected a preteen boy’s spelling of potato on a chalkboard.
The boy had written p-o-t-a-t-o in cursive. Quayle urged him to add an “e”. The boy did as he was told, and Quayle turned and grinned at the camera.
Unfortunately for Quayle, his insistence on adding that “e” was dead wrong. An “e” is only added to potato for its plural form, “potatoes”. He would claim his cue cards were wrong yet he believed them over his own judgement (“?”), but it was far too late for a reprieve. Quayle never lived this or other blunders down, and it all reflected badly on President George H.W. Bush’s presidency.
While being the Vice-President and being on film aren’t everyday for most of us, being in situation where we think we’re right when we’re not is all too common. We bring a unique set of interests, references, and biases to everything we read and we also get more confident with experience. Experience never lets us escape making mistakes or possessing misguided beliefs, it just lets us learn from them if we choose to.
I’ve been on both sides of this situation.
I’ve had someone who didn’t know culinary jargon (or mouth anatomy) correct a term I used in a piece. I had “palate”, they changed it to “palette” and printed it.
*Gasp.* Unfortunately, I had it right the first time. I was talking about the beverage business so the odds of meaning “palate” (part of the mouth) not “palette” (the artist’s paint tool) or even pallet (wooden support frame used in shipping) I thought were pretty clear cut.”?” Oh well. I had to shrug it off and didn’t pick a fight about it. This publication could correct its online version for the error, but the print edition could not. [Did I suggest the correction for online content? Do you even have to ask? ]
And now the other story. When I almost corrected someone and was totally off-base.
I saw “toe the line” in a story I was reading online. Honestly, it looked odd, in the way that words spelled completely correctly sometimes can. I was tempted to chime in, but I paused. I googled it. “Check yourself before you wreck yourself” in proofreading and grammar is never a bad suggestion. Especially on the web, where content has an eternal life, much like embarrassing Veep moments captured on tape.
Sure enough, “toe the line” is correct. It’s a reference to track & field. I can’t say I go around sticking my toe on lines every day. But a runner? A runner has to keep their shoe’s toe on the painted line, remaining perfectly still until the starter pistol goes off. Failing to “toe the line” in running means risking disqualification. Culturally, people who fail to “toe the line” refused to comply with the rules their leadership has created. This often comes up with whistleblowers and those who aren’t “team players”, to use yet another sports term that’s bled over into the business world.
I wondered where I got the “tow” idea. ‘Navy and sailboat-owning household, maybe? In boating and fishing, a “line” is a piece of rope that keeps a boat tethered to the dock, and to “tow” it means to carry or pull it, but by all means don’t drop it or let it go. Sometimes it takes more than one person to hold a line, or lines, to get a boat pulled in to shore and tied to a dock. All this being true, “tow the line” is not a common catchphrase in American English. Over in the UK, I don’t think it is either, but given their long history traversing the world’s oceans, it wouldn’t be out of place if it were. In the UK, “all at sea”, “rolling in the deep”, “lay your ship bare” are just three of many naval catchphrases.
I’m reminded of the American Express ad where the very funny Jerry Seinfeld goes to the UK and his jokes are met with dead silence. He has to get acquainted with how the British speak. Baseball phrases are no good there. He plays some cricket, talks to pub owners, walks Abbey Road. He rewrites all his jokes with British-isms replacing all those Americanisms, and finds success at last.
- Every person brings their own experiences to their reading, for better or worse.
- We’re blind to our own ignorances until they stare us in the face. This is why it’s so crucial to check ourselves.
- Even when we think we’re right, it’s worth confirming before calling the other person’s mistake out. It will save everyone embarrassment.
- Be patient with ESL speakers who come from a culture with its own mosaic of language, metaphor and jargon. What’s obvious to the native born American is bewildering to new speakers, and we’d be just as clueless when learning their language. So much is learned growing up in a language and being in a country, just learning the language is half the story.
*=”potatoe blight” is intentionally misspelled as part of the joke.