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VOL. 127 | NO. 62 | Thursday, March 29, 2012

Vic Fleming

Spring Brings Viewer Mail

By Vic Fleming

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Comments ()

The Beatles sang, “It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter,” but that is not what we’ve had here in the Natural State. It’s been warm and anything but lonely. Lots of viewer mail makes me a happy columnist.

Hallelujah, spring is here!

Lynn Lisk, director of the paralegal program at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith, writes, “Thanks for your 3-legged dog story. I’d never heard ‘The 3-Legged Dog’ song and, as the proud owner of a 3-legged, 4.5-lb. papillon, I needed to.

“My dog, Maya, has never treed (or screened) a raccoon, but she did bark furiously at a large Newfoundland she caught eating her food on the porch last summer. He looked at her with puzzlement and then sauntered off. Maya is missing her front left leg.

“I think Maya envisions herself as a Rottweiler or Mastiff. When she runs, she tucks her left rear leg up as well and just runs on her two right legs, and she’s pretty quick. I’ve discovered that most 3-legged dogs don’t realize they are viewed as disabled.”

Buddy Raines called from his law office not far from my court to tell me his daughter’s favorite joke: This three-legged dog goes into a bar and says to the bartender, “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.”

Don’t get me started on talking-dog jokes.

Last week’s column was about a call in colorlines.com for a Twitter campaign to demand a retraction of a crossword clue, “One caught by border patrol.” The clue called for its answer, ILLEGAL, to be used as a noun. Which is considered pejorative.

Roy Leban, a noted crossword constructor and entrepreneur, weighed in. He believes the call for a Twitter campaign was inappropriate. Among his points,

“1. The clue should not have been used – it is insensitive. The bigots trying to take over our country love to polarize the debate, and they use words like this to help them do so.

“2. The clue is accurate, given current usage. It does not say ‘Every person.’ It says ‘One …’ and that is just as accurate as ‘One in a fruit bowl’ for APPLE or ‘One on a basketball court’ for CENTER, which clues do not imply that every fruit in a fruit bowl is an apple or basketball teams are all centers. Similarly, the clue in this puzzle does not imply that every person ‘caught’ at the border is a suspected illegal immigrant. Yes, this sidesteps the fact that the usage is politically charged. See point 1.

“3. Crossword clues are frequently underspecified. That’s what makes them clues instead of definitions.”

Roy had a few more points, including that neither the puzzle author nor the puzzle editor is a bigot, that there are more important things to get outraged about than insensitive crossword clues, and that polite, rather than vitriolic, complaints about insensitivity are more likely to succeed.

I still don’t know how to retract a clue. But I’ll bet that if the puzzle in point makes it to book form, it will be with a different clue for ILLEGAL.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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