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Shell Shocked: The Old Proofreader

By Staff | Jul 20, 2016

He did it again. He was studying a menu at a nearby restaurant and he began to giggle. He had caught another lulu. He found a typographical error in the menu. There was a misspelled word among the appetizers. It said “muscles” instead of “mussels.”

He called the maitre’d over and lashed into him about why such an elegant restaurant had spelling mistakes in the menu. All the poor maitre’d could do was stammer, hem and haw. To recede gracefully from the table he ordered the gentleman a complimentary glass of the best wine in the house.

The old man was gloating. He had done it again. He had caught a mistake in another printed document. For, you see, the old gentleman was the Old Proofreader.

The Old Proofreader was legendary. He was a recluse during the day but made the rounds at night to find public documents that he would devour with relish to find errors. He decried the sloppiness with which modern English is used.

To properly understand the Old Proofreader’s mission to find fault with the use of the English language by movers and shakers, we must go back in history to that fateful day that forever changed and shaped his life.

He was a young man on his way up in a textbook publishing company. He had just been promoted to a full production editor and was responsible for taking a textbook from initial manuscript to a finished book. His future was ahead of him – until that fateful day when he was asked to come into the office of the division’s editor-in-chief.

The editor-in-chief was staring at the first copy off the press of a new textbook called “Agriculture for Fun and Profit.” The Old Proofreader, who was then known as the Young Proofreader, took a seat silently. The editor-in-chief looked up and said: “Do you realize you’ve ruined this company?”

The Young Proofreader turned pale. “What do you mean I’ve ruined this company? I’ve done my job well. I’m the best copy editor you have and you know it.”

The editor-in-chief sighed deeply. “Then how do you explain this colossal error that completely slipped through all the steps of this book’s production and is now the cause of it being a laughing stock throughout the textbook industry?”

The Young Proofreader was totally taken aback. “I don’t understand. What colossal error?”

“First, let me ask you a question. You’ve just completed the production of ‘Agriculture for Fun and Profit.’ Have you ever been on a farm in your life?”

The Young Proofreader was puzzled. “No, sir. I grew up in the Bronx. The closest I’ve been to a farm is the Bronx Botanical Gardens.”

“Well, then I guess you don’t know your cows from your pigs.”

“Come again, sir?”

The editor-in-chief continued: “Would you open the textbook to page 36 and read the very first sentence out loud.”

The Young Proofreader did as he was asked. “One of the true cattle breed treasures in the U.S. is the Goldstein breed.” He looked up. “Is there anything wrong with that sentence?”

The editor-in-chief practically screamed. “Goldstein cattle? Do you mean to say that you’re not aware of the colossal error you made?”

The Young Proofreader reviewed the sentence again. “No, sir. It seems correct to me.”

The editor-in-chief whisked the textbook out of the hands of the Young Proofreader and threw it across the room. It hit the far wall snapping the spine of the book.

“That should be ‘Holstein’, not ‘Goldstein.’ There is no such thing as a Goldstein cow. You mean to tell me you didn’t know that?”

The Young Proofreader found himself stammering. “I could have sworn it was Goldstein not Holstein. Oh, my God. This is the first proofreading error I’ve ever made. Is there anything I can do to rectify this situation?”

The editor-in-chief looked him calmly in the eyes. “Yes, there is. I want you to leave the building now and go to work on a cattle farm for three years. When you’ve done this come back and we will see if there is any job waiting for you here outside that of a janitor. Just get out.”

And so the Young Proofreader trudged out of the book publishing building feeling ashamed, embarrassed and despondent. He tried getting a job at another textbook publisher but the Goldstein gaffe had by now made the rounds.

Unable to work and live a normal life, the Young Proofread needed to find a way to prove himself. From that day on, he made it his life’s mission to spot typographical errors and spelling mistakes in restaurant menus wherever he went. The years passed, and restaurant owners dreaded the day when he might show up and embarrass them.

In time, The Young Proofreader became the Old Proofreader.

Legend has it that he now sits in the Capital Building in Washington, D.C., during every State of the Union Address by a sitting president of the United States and shouts out corrections to the speech. You might say that despite the legendary Goldstein trauma, he is currently living out his dream.

-Art Stevens is a long-time columnist for The Islander. His tongue-in-cheek humor is always offered with a smile.