“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” — Oscar Wilde

“Mea culpa” is a Latin phrase meaning “my mistake.” Specifically, it is used as an admission of having made a mistake that should have been avoided. In other words, “oops!” Or to put it another way, let’s just say I have lots of “experience” when it comes to writing.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Late “Language Maven” William Safire sold a lot of books by being the most “vociferously argued-with writer on the subject of the English language,” as many of his readers often took issue with his assertions and conclusions.

Since my chances of becoming a best-selling author are microscopically small, I’ll instead opt for the Confucian approach of “If you make a mistake and do not correct it, that is called a mistake.” So, as not to be guilty of any mistakes, I’ll now go about trying to correct my mistakes.

I’ll begin with one I made when I wrote about something called the Simplified Spelling Board, which advocated for spelling words phonetically. In that piece I noted that the group’s benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, had grown tired of funding it and made no provisions to support it beyond his “dearth.” Hopefully his passing didn’t create a scarcity of Carnegies.

At the end of a column I wrote about aging, I used the quote, “I am not young enough to know everything,” which I credited to Oscar Wilde until an alert reader told me it was actually written by “Peter Pan” creator J. M. Barrie. So now I “attribute” a quote to someone (which leaves a little wiggle room) unless I’m sure of its origin.


Then there was the time that I visited the Department of Redundancy Department. In that piece, I took aim at phrases such as “ATM machine,” and the “PIN number” it takes to use one. Everything was fine until a reader took issue with “free gift,” claiming that the phrase wasn’t redundant at all. He even made a pretty good argument to support his case, but I still think a gift is a gift, and to me, a gift is free.

I messed up an otherwise-wonderful piece about the witty members of New York’s Algonquin Round Table when I incorrectly attributed the quote “Sports don’t build character, they reveal it” (which I recently reused) to Heywood Hale Broun instead of his father, Heywood Campbell Broun Jr., who was married to journalist and feminist Ruth Hale.

Recently I wrote a piece about nonsense words, which included the fact that a little book tried to coin the word “spork” for the utensil even though the device had been patented under the same name a decade earlier. I neglected to mention that the spork is also known as a “runcible spoon.”

According to A.Word.A.Day at wordsmith.com, “runcible” was coined as a nonsense word by Edward Lear in his 1871 poem “The Owl and the Pussycat”: “They dined on mince, and slices of quince / Which they ate with a runcible spoon.”

In the “left undone” category, I have long felt that a column I wrote about truth and alternative facts was incomplete because I neglected to make the distinction between “disinformation” and “misinformation.” You’re disseminating disinformation when you say something you know is not true, but you say it anyway. Disinformation is deliberately deceptive.

Misinformation, on the other hand, is created when you say something you think is true, but it’s not. Misinformation is information that’s incorrect or misleading — in other words, the type of mistakes I hope I’ve corrected here.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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