Now cum is an interesting word. Latin, of course, a preposition meaning “with.” It begins the aphorism cum grano salis — “with a grain of salt” — a note of skepticism going back to ancient Rome, when soldiers’ pay was connected to the common mineral (“salary” derives from the Latin salarium, the money soldiers were paid to buy salt).
We see it particularly this time of year, on diplomas flashed at graduations. There is cum laude, “with praise,” magna cum laude, “with great praise” and the utmost, summa cum laude, or “with greatest praise.”
You and I know this because we’re human beings in a literate society. We pick things up.
But the cake-decoration system at the Publix supermarket in Charleston, South Carolina is not human, and does not know this. It’s a computer, programmed to weed out surprisingly frequent attempts to render profanity into icing. (Sigh. There is a non-Latin, sexual meaning to the Latin term which, if you don’t know, I’m not going to explain. Ask around).
Charleston mom Cara Koscinski ordered a cake from her local Publix supermarket to honor her son Jacob, graduating from a Christian home schooling program.
Ordering online, she designated it was a graduation cake, which automatically conjured up mortarboard and scroll ornaments. Then she plugged in “Congrats Jacob! Summa Cum Laude Class of 2018.”
Up popped a red warning: “Profane/special characters not allowed.”
As is common with automated systems, there was an out, a place for “Special Instructions,” where Koscinski explained that, as opposed to its center syllable standing alone, “summa cum laude” is not in fact profane.
Sensing trouble, she also called the store and talked to the cake wrangler and explained the matter. She thought that would be enough.
Saturday was a busy day, with the family in town for the graduation ceremony. She sent her husband Brant to Publix pick up the cake. They did not open the box until the family was gathered around. It read, in blue icing: “Congrats Jacob! Summa – – – Laude Class of 2018.”
“A huge shock to all of us,” she said. Her son was humiliated — his friends certainly recognized what word was missing and why.
“They’re Christian home-schooled, but they’re not stupid,” she said. “They know what that means. They’re boys.”
His 70-year-old grandmother, however, did require an explanation.
The Publix manager “acted like it was my fault,” Cara said, quoting him wearily explaining: “You don’t know what requests we get.” (Publix did not respond to a request for comment). Though she did get her $70 back, and is viewing the media attention light-heartedly.
“I think the whole thing is ridiculous, hilarious,” she said. “It’s stupid.”
Maybe. There are several places you could go from here. These “two-way words” as comedian George Carlin called them on his “Class Clown” album, traditionally dwelling awkwardly in the hinterland of acceptability. “Remember the ones you giggled at in 6th grade?” Carlin asks. “‘And the cock crowed three times!'” Going into a tough schoolboy’s voice: “‘The cock crowed three times!’ Heh-heh-heh. It’s in the Bible.”
But I’d rather close with a reminder that the nuance of regular human life is still very hard for computers to grasp, and those sounding the Artificial Intelligence gong of doom for the human race — Elon Musk, Bill Gates and others who really should know better — should step back and realize just how clumsily AI is done in 2018. Incidents like this are a good reminder.
We’re always afraid that every new technological advance is going to be our taskmaster someday. Maybe that’s to distract from real problems. Self-driving vehicles will put cabbies and truck drivers out of business in the near future, but instead we worry about drones forcing us to work in the lithium mines. We imagine far-off perils to help us forget that right now we live in world at risk of being washed away in the climate-change-fueled storms half the country won’t even speak about.
In the meantime, a little Latin always helps. I’ve been reading Sallust’s history of the Cataline conspiracy, expecting some classical references to electoral treason to come in handy in the months to come.
“Cum tacent clamant,” Cicero says in his first oration against Cataline. “With silence they cry out.” What you don’t say can proclaim guilt as readily as a confession. Keep that in mind.