March 12, 2004
By David A. Zimmerman
I was riffing on a theme--abbreviations--and in my enthusiasm I misrepresented the abbreviation for gold from the periodic table of the elements. It is, of course, AU; I think I inadvertently stuck lead in its place, a kind of reverse literary alchemy.
I was embarrassed for all sorts of reasons. First off, the periodic table doesn't contain abbreviations per se; it's more precise to refer to the elements' representations as symbols. Beyond that, I wouldn't expect to know any of the periodic table by heart because I am by any measure completely disinterested in things scientific--landing on the symbol for lead would have been entirely accidental--except that I had no excuse for not knowing the symbol for gold. As a student of late-twentieth-century American social/cultural history (they actually let me major in this), I should have remembered that political campaigns from the 1960s represented the name of Barry Goldwater using symbols from the periodic table: Goldwater = AU-H2O. (I'm pretty sure that AU = gold and H2O = water, though I've given up on making such bold assertions.)
Not to mention that I make my living as an editor, which involves (make that "should involve") checking facts. The periodic table is prominently displayed in my dictionary, which I supposedly use every day. I would insert my mea culpa here, but I'm too lazy to make sure that means what I think it means.
The weird thing is that only one person pointed out the error, even though very nearly everyone I know received my Christmas letter. I don't know which scenario I prefer:
1. All my family and friends are embarrassingly uneducated about the periodic table of the elements and late-twentieth-century American social/cultural history.
In any event, I'm not sure if I'd rather have my mistakes pointed out so I can become a better person or remain blissfully ignorant of any fallibilities I might suffer from (such as, for example, ending a sentence with a preposition, which I narrowly avoided here by inserting this parenthetical comment).
Needless to say, I intend to be a bit more careful with this year's Christmas letter. The news that I had potentially embarrassed myself in front of my whole universe of relationships was not my favorite gift this past Christmas, but it's also the only gift I haven't been able to return for money.
Oops--did I just print that?
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