Like so many of you, I have turned to "Jeopardy!" to cheat the mediocrity of the rest of television. I look forward, as each day wanes, to a pleasant bout with culture. With my feet up and a sugar cookie, I gain priceless knowledge about President James K. Polk, the planet Pluto, medieval jongleurs, lady publishers, colleges and universities, famous Bulgarians, and all other subjects. I, myself (personally), am not as ignorant as I frequently make out, and I do very well with the program's final answer, the question related to which usually pays well and makes me glad I'm smart. I believe that had I been paid all I've won on that game show, I would be very rich today and could trade in my Essex for a new car.
The program is a comfortable matter. We all dislike being exposed to licensed know-it-alls, but "Jeopardy!" invites relaxed attention. The program really has but two commodities: facts and Professor Trebek. He, as moderator, interlocutor, and genial host disguises his monstrous erudition with modest manners, until you wonder if he'd know anything if somebody swiped his cue cards. He is just right, of course, and is benevolent when some contestant blows a response with utter idiocy.
But Alex Trebek is amiable and docile, and is paid to be so, and he remains the proper master of his trade, always informative and friendly.
Facts, on the other hand, as Gil Blas told us long ago, are stubborn things. As "Jeopardy!" pursues its relentless career, it turns up facts as a digging machine turns up potatoes under the September sun in the township of Easton, Maine. If you have never seen a potato-harvesting machine at work, particularly in Easton, you should make the trip someday. It is big, like the trailer that carries the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the same number of people are on it, not singing, but sorting, grading, cleaning, and admiring the potatoes, and also tossing out rocks the machine brings up because it can't tell some potatoes from some rocks. Someday they'll have this on "Jeopardy!"
Someday, also, the show is going to come up smack against a fact that doesn't budge, and the program will mix up James K. Polk with Clare Booth Luce, and the flag of Texas will sport 13 stars. (It is true that now and then in the exuberance of Aroostook agronomy, a rock will appear to be a potato.)
I cannot deny that as I became more and more hooked on "Jeopardy!" I began to wonder when a mistake would appear. And so I did learn all there is to know about James K. Polk, and which presidential wives were left-handed, and who began the Shaker movement, and what became of the O'Leary cow, and the name of General Sheridan's horse, and the principal religion of Sumatra, and what is the gestation period of the periwinkle, and what is the slogan for Bon Ami, and what month is named for the god Janus, and so on and so on. Every bit of it good, clean, edifying information, contributing pleasantly to the good of all. Listen to "Jeopardy!" and amaze your friends. Who ran a two-minute mile?
I admit that as I have grown older I doze now and then in my chair and I do miss some opportunities to add to my knowledge. Well, I know so much now that people speak of it all up and down the street, and I wouldn't want my total, as Shakespeare puts it in that play, to lapse in its own too-much. I am past needing to impress people. My constant attention to "Jeopardy!" is for amusement only, and for that moment when some errant fact, leaping in ferocious abandon, snaps at Professor Trebek and wounds him in his conundral inquisition.
Satisfied that this would never happen, that the staff preparing the show is far too astute to goof, I had relaxed my attention. Some evenings I would fall asleep, sugar cookie and all. And then! What do you think?
(I am reminded of the chap walking across a stream on a log. He said, later, "I heard a big splash! What do you think? It was me!")
What do you think? Trebek asked for the first adjective in "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe. Dozing, I mumbled to myself, "That's an easy one. All you need to know are the words of the poem, and what an adjective is." So I ran through the first verse, came to an adjective, and jotted on my imaginary score sheet that I had just won another $50,000.
Then a horrible thing happened. I was roused from my complacency by the incredible pronouncement that the first adjective in "The Raven" is "dreary." In his unquestionable finality, Trebek had spoken! The show was over, bedtime was at hand, and a fact had struck at last!
Alas and alack, no! Not with flippancy, but with serious and scholarly respect for a stubborn fact, I composed a letter about this and the next morning mailed it, hoping to learn what they do when they err. Thus:
"Dear Mr. Jeopardy: The first adjective in 'The Raven' by E.A. Poe is not 'dreary,' as you told us, but is the indefinite article 'a,' which supports 'midnight.' Thank you for many hours of pleasant viewing."
So now we know what "Jeopardy!" does when it gets caught in an error. It doesn't do anything. Mr. Jeopardy has not responded. As Mr. Harris put it, he lay low and say nuthin'.
What do you think?
Is 'a' an adjective?
Write: The Christian Science Monitor, Home Forum Jeopardy, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115
Or e-mail: THOMASO@CSPS.COM
Please respond by April 11.