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Figure of Speech

By Gerry Turcotte


Gerry Turcotte

Hamster sandwiches

For all of us make many mistakes. — James 3.2

One of the biggest transformations in today’s culture is in the level of technological change that has made life not only easier, but also faster. I’m thinking in particular of the way information has been digitized so that content can be written, edited and converted into final form almost instantaneously.

As a longtime editor I can remember when a laboriously typed manuscript had to be sent to a typesetter, which was then returned as galley proofs that we hand-corrected to return for re-printing. I’m also old enough to remember the invention of the self-correcting tape on the IBM Selectric typewriter, which was considered a miraculous time saver. When the personal computer came along, with a floppy disk that could hold the equivalent of a long email, it was downright revolutionary. My son put this in perspective when he informed me that my iPhone 5 had more computing power than all of the machines that guided a rocket ship to the moon in the 1960s.

In an imperfect world, mistakes are inevitable, but it is certainly true that with speed comes an increased likelihood of errors. Rushing to complete a truckload of paperwork before the Christmas break, my assistant sent me a classic typo: a motion thanking retiring board members for their “mangy contribution” to the university. Luckily she caught the mistake and substituted “many” for “mangy.” As readers of my column know I wasn’t so fortunate when I sent a note to my faculty with the salutation, “Dead Colleagues.” Another friend told me of her frustration with an option to “recall” an email that had the effect of drawing attention to the error-filled note she had sent. People who would normally delete the email unread found three versions of the text instead — the original, the retracted and the corrected — and gleefully dwelled on all the mistakes.

In the end, of course, and irrespective of the technology, human error will always find a way to make its voice heard. One of my favourite transpositional mistakes was from the 1980s when Gary Larsen published The Far Side. In one newspaper it appeared next to Dennis the Menace, each a single panel with the humorous caption typed at the bottom. On at least one occasion typesetters accidentally printed the punchlines under the wrong comic. In a classic blunder, Larsen’s cartoon showed a cranky young snake at the dinner table saying, “Lucky I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we woulda starved by now,” while Dennis Mitchell complained, “Oh brother . . . Not hamsters again!”

In the university context, especially in the pedagogical sphere, errors are the basis of learning. I remember one student telling me that they were bilingual in at least three languages before submitting an essay that proved they were literate in none. Another insisted that she was a work alcoholic and therefore not afraid of studying. In both cases they went on to be A students.

We can’t be afraid of our mistakes, and just as importantly, we need to be able to laugh at ourselves, not take things too seriously, and then strive to improve. As John Powell once said: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Or to quote Andrew Mason, “Admit your errors before someone else exaggerates them.” After all, as one of the above students emailed when I had corrected her work: “To air is human!”

Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.