Obitiatrist, Obitiatrist, Obitiatrist, Obitiatrist, . . .

December 28, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Each year at this time, I like to cleanse my calendar and my conscience by fessing up to the mistakes, misjudgments and misstatements that sneaked past my personal error-check software and into this column.

My annual Media Culpa rite is good for the soul. My offenses, however, were relatively modest. I was not the one, for example, who told President Clinton to just get the issue of gays in the military off the table and it would be clear sailing. I was not the one who told Bob Packwood that he really ought to put all the juicy stories in his diary where nobody would find them.

Nevertheless, there are amends to be amended.

First of all the happy mistakes. Last summer, when Joe McGinniss' dreadful, psycho-babbling bio-fiction of Ted Kennedy was thrust onto the bookshelves, I predicted that it would sell like hot cakes. Oh me of little faith. This bombshell bombed. Reports are that Simon and Schuster had to eat over 200,000 unsold copies of ''The Last Brother.'' Alas, they made up their loss with Howard Stern's ''Private Parts.''

I offered another prediction about guns. I suggested that fighting the NRA wasn't political suicide anymore; it might even be political salvation in Virginia and New Jersey elections. My rumors of the death of NRA power were a bit premature. Both Mary Sue Terry and Jim Florio lost their gubernatorial races. But Jim Brady won in Congress.

The NRA took me to task for my math as well as my opinions. I had written that there were 24,000 handgun murders in 1991. No, no, the members wrote. It was 24,000 handgun deaths -- including suicides and accidents as well as murders. Thank you for setting me straight. I feel ever so much safer.

Another group hath protested ever-so-righteously about an error. Several Daughters of the American Revolution complained that my obituary on Marian Anderson repeated the charge that she was banned from singing at Constitution Hall. They have the 1939 schedule to prove the hall was already reserved. This doesn't put them on the front lines of civil rights.

Then there was Geoffrey Fieger, a lawyer who oozes all the charm of a pit bull. He complains bitterly that, among other things, I called his client, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, an ''obiatrist'' when the word for death doctor was ''obitiatrist.'' He ended his elegant note by calling me a religious nut and my column ''a piece of [dung].'' I will make a deal with our boy Geoff. I will use obitiatrist, if he will try self-restraint.

Do I sound Puritanical? Or Pilgrimatical? In my Thanksgiving column, I said it was the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock. A sorry mistake for a Massachusetts native. It was the Pilgrims.

I also described Lani Guinier as another hit-and-run victim of Washington politics. She --ed onto the scene when nominated to head the civil-rights office. She was hit with a label ''Quota Queen'' and then disappeared. Well, happily this woman isn't road kill. She's become well known and well respected.

Now on to the Guardians of Grammar and the Word Police. First, I apologize to Paul Tsongas. I referred to him as ''the former male senator.'' Well, he is a former senator but, despite my grammatical sex-change operation, still a male.

Elsewhere I wrote that ''every homicide isn't front-page news.'' In fact, ''not every homicide is front-page news.'' But maybe it should be.

One day this fall, I found myself ''pouring'' over recipes. What was I pouring? Coffee? Tea? Me? I should have been ''poring.''

I also referred to letters about gays in the military as missiles coming in. Was I being a touch, uh, defensive. Where are you, Freud, when I slip? I meant ''missives.''

Then there is the tale of Tailhook. It has me running the gantlet -- or is it gauntlet? -- of warring wordsmiths. Here are the facts: Gantlet is a stretch of railroad track over a bridge. Gauntlet is a glove of medieval origin. But the punishment in which a man ran between two lines of armed men -- or a woman ran between lines of grabbing men -- is a gauntlet or a gantlet. Take your choice and spell it o-u-t-r-a-g-e.

Finally, I must admit to a very wordy mistake. Last year at just this time, I confessed to a gaff instead of a gaffe. A gaff is a hook, a gaffe is a blunder. I made a big one.

Here's to a gaffe-free New Year. Let's give '93 the gaff.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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