Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Pratfall of Monumental Indiscretion

Maj.-Gen. Rohmer lays the
 smackdown on yours truly...
(Photo CC Wikipedia)
It’s not every day that Canada’s most decorated citizen personally tells you, in writing, that you are egregiously wrong.

Not only that -- he also tells you that he is notifying, in writing, the Premier of Ontario, the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister of Government Services, and the Lieutenant Governor of your mistake.

But it happened to me!

I consider it a stupendous accomplishment of mirthful foolishness that few will be able to match -- I challenge you to do better! I don’t think you can.

This is a risible tale of prideful self-righteousness: of well-meaning, but misguided pedantry. Or you might just call it idiocy. I relate it with, I’m sorry to say, sizable amusement. It’s a delicious, classic shenanigan!

The upbraiding I have received is totally, absurdly mortifying -- but it is simply too good to keep private; too stinging not to reveal to you; too savage not to share with the world at large. Of course, it is embarrassing -- and, in a different age, would doubtless result in serious social disapprobation -- but that element is part of what makes it a stellar reminder that I am often full of myself.

Have I piqued your curiosity? The story goes like this...

A Typo on the Ontario Veterans’ Memorial?
A few years ago, while passing through Queen’s Park, I visited the serene Ontario Veterans’ Memorial to pay my respects. There, the opening lines of the central inscription by Jane Urquhart read:

Is ‘discrete’ a typographical error?

Surely, I remarked to myself, it ought to be ‘discreet’. The French translation implies it. 

Like any gadfly with too much leisure time on his hands, I wrote a flippant letter to the then-Minister of Government Services, requesting to have it fixed -- but received no response. I forgot about the matter, and years passed.

Then, a recent online discussion about common word errors reminded me of my quibble with the Memorial text. I decided, on a whim, to have another go at it. (What vanity!)

I drafted a second inflated letter -- equally if not more presumptuous -- and wrote to the new Minister of Government Services. For bonus effect (and because I failed to generate an answer last time) I decided to copy several other parties -- just to observe the response from our civic institutions. (Government ministers rarely view all the correspondence addressed to them. Rather, they typically have an office dedicated to this function, staffed with writers to ensure that all responses have the correct positioning and use consistent language.)

In retrospect, that was a mistake.

I cc'd the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario -- and Major-General Richard Rohmer, the Memorial Advisory Committee co-chair.

I figured that this would be an entertaining missive for their ‘crank’ files, and that I might get a token form answer from some poor lackey in the ministry tasked with writing back. Or, likely as not, I’d just get ignored again -- after all, there are plenty of critical and pressing issues to focus on, especially with a provincial election coming up in the fall.

A crisp, curt response
To my absolute delight, I finally received a letter in response to my query -- signed by no less than the illustrious hand of Major-General Rohmer -- OC, CMM, DFC, O.Ont., K.StJ, CD, Of.L, QC, BA, JD, LLD, UEL, Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, Barrister and Solicitor. Did I mention that Rohmer is a celebrated World War II fighter pilot and D-Day veteran? Honorary Deputy Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police? Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Windsor?

What’s more -- he reads his mail. All of it.

The Major-General’s unequivocal comment:
“With great respect, you are wrong, completely.”
It is only with the most admirable restraint that our nation’s most decorated citizen -- someone with more letters after his name than there are in the alphabet; someone with so many medals he occasionally struggles to wear them all properly -- refrains from calling me a complete twit, and from castigating me for wasting people’s time with such foolishness.

But it’s not that hard to read between the lines...

I feel that I must celebrate having egg on my face publicly, as a dire warning to other pompous language nincompoops out there. Play with fire, and one day you may get burned!

Herewith Major-General Rohmer’s letter to me (reproduced with his kind permission):

Kapow! A knockout blow.
Zing! Like a lightning bolt obliterating me from on high. What a crushing take-down.

I love the precise formality. He is so polite -- ‘with great respect’ -- and devastating at the same time. I have seldom encountered such clear, unambiguous communication. Very impressive.

If you must insist on being a harping language prescriptivist, you have to accept responsibility for when you are in the wrong.

As I appear to be, in this case. A perfectly civil humiliation. The lesson here: always check your facts. Rather than show off my erudition I have instead exposed my incompetence!

I would be remiss if I did not also mention that I additionally dropped a note to Jane Urquhart, inquiring as to her intended word choice on the inscription -- she has not responded as yet, but I am hopeful that she will do me the signal honour of confirming my ridiculous error.

The cherry topping is that the various civic offices have played witness to this evisceration. Screeds from random citizens about kooky pet issues can easily be ignored -- but the first instinct of any trained civil servant on seeing the Major-General’s imposing letterhead would be: ‘Send this upstairs!’

Somewhere out there, a bunch of senior provincial ministry staff are laughing their asses off at me.

Passing the buck
The Minister decides to pass the buck...
Farcically, the story doesn’t quite end there...

I subsequently received this lovely note from Minister Takhar (see right). A creeping sensation of ‘What have I done?!’ came over me.

The staff at the Ministry of Government Services, rather than consign my query to its rightful oblivion, decided to refer the matter onwards, to the Minister of Infrastructure!

(I targeted the Minister of Government Services, as that was Gerry Phillips’ position during the Memorial’s unveiling ceremony in 2006.)

Were they not in receipt of Major-General Rohmer’s scathing correction? Also of note -- more deadly cc’s, ensuring the matter receives official attention at the highest levels...

I suppose I had best advise Minister Chiarelli of Major-General Rohmer’s comments, before this gets out of hand, and some unsuspecting workman is sent to ‘fix’ the error.

Reflection and commentary -- an honest mistake
Few things give me deeper pleasure than to see pretension deftly punctured. Watching a fool get his comeuppance is eminently satisfying.

It is consequently hilarious when the buffoon turns out to be ME!

I’ll be sure to post an update, should I receive further correspondence (Is it possible for anyone to surpass my spectacular tomfoolery? At least, without serious injury? I rather doubt it).

Still -- I meant well. I was serious, and sincere in my desire to be sure the Memorial is flawless in every respect -- our veterans deserve nothing less.

Which word do you think is more plausible? Particularly when you read the French version? Candidly, as a layperson -- what’s your answer? Since ‘discrete’ is the intended word choice, the translation, avec discrétion seems to have a certain ambiguity...

What does Larousse say about discrétion? Hmmm...

If I asked 100 French speakers to translate Ils ont quitté avec courage, discrétion et humilité, what percentage would translate discrétion as ‘distinct, separate’ versus ‘discreet, circumspect’? And then if I asked 100 English speakers which pair of words belong together, what percentage would choose ‘discrete and humble’ versus ‘discreet and humble’?

Just asking. Am I entirely wrong?

Apparently I am. An honest mistake. I swear!

One minor comfort is the inscription on the Major-General’s coat of arms, which reads, Ad proximum ventum pistrinum. Meaning, “On to the next windmill.” 

That might be a good motto to follow here...