False Erudition and Muphry’s Law

Wikipedia’s article on Muphry’s Law states that “Muphry’s law is an adage that states: ‘If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.’ The name is a deliberate misspelling of Murphy’s law.” So I do not begin this article without trepidation. However.

One form of tacit criticism is the use of “[sic].” In her Handbook for Scholars, Mary-Claire van Leunen writes about “sic“:

In general…the expression is both condescending and hostile. To correct an error in a quotation is merely condescending; to leave it in and sic it is an attack. Be warned, and do not take up arms unknowingly. Avoid using “sic” just to show how precise and knowledgeable you are, and above all make sure that the error you point out is really wrong.

He who sics the blameless phrase
Hoping he will gather praise
Makes himself a double fool,
Wrong and pompous. Mind the rule:
Sic less, and you won’t be sorrier;
Sic more, and sic transit gloria.

If on consideration you choose to slip the gimlet “sic” in between the ribs of your enemy’s words, go to it. Serious quarrel in high style is one of the joys of the scholarly life.

Alabama Heritage is a scholarly publication. Most of its contributors have Ph.D. degrees or are in the process of acquiring one. But everyone slips from time to time, and the editors of Alabama Heritage, who should be catching these slips, have been responsible for some notable failures. For example, an article about “German POWs at Fort McClellan” reported that “In a three-month period, camp dentists extracted over 1,086 teeth, placed 102 fillings, and repaired six palettes.” Another article said that, “As a cutter, he was on the lowest wrung of the Black Belt economic ladder.” A photo cutline referred to the “frontespiece” of a book.

Still, intended erudition thrives. In the current (Winter 2015) issue, a writer quotes a December 23, 1864, letter from Malinda Taylor to her husband, Pvt. Grant Taylor, who was serving in the Confederate Army in southern Alabama:

“[A]nother Cristmas [sic] is nearly here and you are still absent. I was so in hopes you would spende [sic] this Christmas [sic] at home but it seemes [sic] that I will have to spend it again without you. I pray before another Cristmas [sic] shall role around that you may bee [sic] permitted to get home safe and sound.”

Editorial tastes may differ, but if I were quoting this letter, I would not feel the need to use a single one of these sics. Certainly siccing the first instance of “Cristmas” would suffice for all. The irony, of course, is that the author of the article, perhaps relying on the wavy underlines of her spelling checker, has not noticed that “role” is also misspelled! This lapse somewhat spoils the effect of her condescending emphasis of all the other errors.

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