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Add hominem

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Add (cq) hominem:

In a recent discussion of the rhetorical device ad hominem, this column said that "ad hominem seeks to discredit an idea by belittling its opponent, frequently through innuendo." That should have been "ad hominem seeks to discredit an idea by belittling its proponent, frequently through innuendo."

Looks like my assistant and the Times copy desk all stubbed their toes on this one. But I'll take part of the blame. I'm always too lenient with them during the Christmas season.

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Results are mixed:

A headline from the Standard Democrat of Sikeston, Mo.; "Grade cards used to gauge student progress."

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High school commencement speakers and other bores always used to work the phrase "from the sublime to the ridiculous" into their orations. I never knew where it came from, and never much cared, until I recently saw it attributed to Thomas Paine. So I checked Bartlett's, which spreads the credit or blame around, as Bartlett's often does. Unless it's from Shakespeare or the Bible, any quotation that gets collected is likely to be attributed to more than one source.

Paine's is the earliest citation, from "The Age of Reason," written in 1793: "When authors and critics talk of the sublime, they see not how nearly it borders on the ridiculous."

Napoleon is quoted from a letter he wrote in 1812, referring to his retreat from Moscow: "From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step."

Bartlett's doesn't quote him directly, but it says the "sublime to the ridiculous" business is also attributed to Talleyrand, the French diplomat and contemporary of Paine and Napoleon. I envision the three of them hanging out in Paris, and after a few glasses of wine Napoleon saying, "Hey Tom, that was a pretty good line about the proximity of the sublime and the ridiculous. Mind if I borrow it in case I get chased out of Russia?" (He would have said this in French, most likely.) And Paine says, "No problem, but be sure and give me credit." "You bet," Napoleon says. Talleyrand sits mute.

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