“Columbus discovered America, but not on purpose.”

When I was growing up, Columbus Day was always October 12. I loved those times, when there might be a vacation/holiday any day of the week. I had been planning to save my “Columbus” gem for the 12th, but I find I just can’t wait any longer.

This is another one of those sentences that are technically perfectly fine, but nevertheless pretty funny. I find it particularly apt because it was written by an ESL student whose first language was Spanish.

I have nothing but admiration for people who can step into a society and a language new to them and quickly become competent and comfortable there. Studying two European languages and singing or otherwise dabbling in several more has brought home to me how much is involved in living in two languages, or existing deeply in one and dealing in another.

Just the same, “English as She Is Spoke,” a book that charmed Mark Twain, also charms me, as do utterances all over the globe that use English vocabulary in sincere but amazing ways. English seems to lend itself to funny errors, as so many of my EOL (English as the Only Language) students show me every day.

This statement, like one of my earlier posts (“Women were learning to read and write, maybe not intentionally“), conjures up the image of someone surprising himself or herself by stumbling onto something major completely by accident.

It’s true that when Columbus set out to find a western route to India he hadn’t intended to discover America; he hadn’t intended to bump into any land mass that wasn’t India. Many of our great scientists, explorers, inventors, et al., discover something important in the course of trying to do something completely else. How, in fact, can someone consciously set out to discover something specific nobody can imagine is there?

I guess in the case of this example, what’s funny is that it kind of reduces Columbus to a child. I can remember my young self insisting to my mommy or daddy that “I didn’t do it on purpose!” This was always a plea for leniency or forgiveness for a BAD result.

Come to think of it, as so many of us reevaluate Columbus Day—the day a European opened the door to colonialism, oppression, looting, and genocide of indigenous peoples who had been living their own lives and bothering no Europeans for millennia—maybe we should give a break to the guy himself, poor Cristofero, who didn’t do it on purpose.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““Columbus discovered America, but not on purpose.”

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