Here's a letter to the editor of The New York Times that you won't be reading in that august newspaper:
September 17, 2012
To the Editor:
I love Gail Collins. She writes an interesting, insightful and thought-provoking op-ed column, as in her latest about the importance of Ohio's electoral votes in the 2012 presidential election ("Ohio Gets The Love," September 27).
But I digress. I also read her columns to see if she uses those three words, as she does in her latest column. According to a website search of her nearly 1,000 columns since June 23, 2000, the hackneyed phrase, "But I digress," or some form of it, appears 45 times, 36 of them since she became a regular columnist in July 2007.
According to her website, her banner year was 2010, when she "digressed" ten times, followed by eight times in 2008, six in 2009, five in 2011, four in 2007, and only three so far this year.
But with more than three months left in a divisive election year and political, economic and social turmoil raging around the world, I eagerly await her next columns, while silently encouraging her to "Go ahead, make my day," with another confession of digression.
(Signed) Albert Eisele
The reason I know the Times won't be using my letter is that Collins told me so in an exchange of emails shortly after I submitted it.
"Dear Al," she wrote, "I feel bad about the digressions. But the alternative is writing about one thing for 800 words. Best, Gail."
Her gracious response made me feel guilty, so I wrote back. "I'm sorry if you feel it puts you in a bad light. I meant for it to have a light touch, but if it comes off as smart ass and/or mean-spirited and if you don't want them to use it, that's fine by me. Keep up the good work."
The next morning, another email from her: "No worries Al. They sent it to me because they weren't going to use it. Some days the letters desk lacks a frolicsome spirit. I'm honored you did so much research. Best, Gail."
Well, I guess the lesson is that the Times' letters desk not only lacks a frolicsome spirit but also the willingness to risk offending an op-ed columnist and former editor of the paper's editorial page -- she stepped down in 2007 to finish a book before returning as a full time columnist later that year.
I don't know what it is about her repeated use of the phrase I cited, an intransitive verb derived from a Latin word meaing "to go aside." But it probably traces back to when I was a reporter at the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press in the early 1960s. One of my editors, the late Bill Sumner, a gifted columnist and phrase-maker, often signaled his readers that he was about to change the subject with the words, "But I digress."
Ever since then, I've been on the lookout for use of the phrase by columnists and speakers, which I find a bit pompous and self-conscious. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to hear Mitt Romney use it one of these days.