"A genuine college degree in 2 weeks!" The e-mail offer from one of America's burgeoning diploma mills has been arriving almost hourly, although about thirty years too late. The sales pitch continues: "Have you ever thought that the only thing stopping you from a great job and better pay was a few letters behind your name?"—letters like B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. "Well now you can get them!"
It's tempting. But one could also just move to Italy. There, a few months ago, an administrative court ruled that students who had earned only a three-year university degree were nonetheless legally entitled to call themselves "dottore," or "doctor." This is of a piece with evolving social practice across a broad front. Elementary school teachers in Italy are entitled to be called "maestro." Teachers in middle school are "professore." A university rector earns the honorific "magnifico."
It may be that the country that gave us rococo pastry and the gilded interior of La Scala is especially prone to fancy titles. Beppe Severgnini, a writer for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, speculates that the Italians, having been ruled for so long by outsiders, developed a predilection for titles as a kind of prosthetic self-esteem. But the surge in title inflation is in fact a worldwide phenomenon—in business, in academe, in government.
Title inflation has always been an occupational hazard for autocrats, famously parodied in the opening lines of Evelyn Waugh's 1932 novel Black Mischief: "We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, being in this the twenty-fourth year of our life …" Haile Selassie, the longtime emperor of Ethiopia, styled himself "King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of Judah." This is by no means a thing of the past. Juan Carlos of Spain, although an exceedingly modern monarch and an ardent democrat, lays claim to thirty-eight distinct titles, including "Duke of Athens" and "Sovereign Grand Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece." North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, "Guardian of Our Planet" and "Lodestar of the Twenty-first Century," has more than a thousand self-bestowed titles. When, recently, foreign observers thought they detected a lessening of the Great Leader's cult of personality, a North Korean diplomat testily told reporters, "It's false information. You cannot remove the sun from the sky."
America won't catch up with Kim tomorrow, but it's on the march. Though the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids the awarding of feudal honorifics ("no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States"), in political Washington and elsewhere the courtesy title "Honorable" (which comes from the British "the Right Honorable Magnificence of Nobles") now applies to virtually anyone who buys a table at a charity event. Universities are adding honorific modifiers like sundae toppings to the names of professorships; the University of Illinois, for instance, offers the option of "Founders," "Jubilee," or "Centenary." High-tech start-ups have no patience with the bland job titles of yesteryear. Fast Company magazine's monthly survey of "job titles of the future" has come across actual people with the titles "idea ambassador," "knowledge sorceress," "chief reality officer," and "curator of the enlightened orchard."
The most pervasive form of title inflation is the extension of restricted honorifics to an ever widening circle of claimants. In 1950 the world chess federation, FIDE, recognized only twenty-seven people as full-fledged grand masters; today there are 930 grand masters. During the Kennedy administration only twenty-nine people held the coveted title of "assistant," "deputy assistant," or "special assistant" to the president; by the time Bill Clinton left office, in 2001, there were 141 such people. In the corporate world the title "vice president" is so common as to have become almost meaningless—a synonym, nearly, for "employee"—and the title "vice chairman" connotes what a vice president used to be. In his weekly column for NFL.com, Gregg Easterbrook noted recently that the front office of the Houston Texans has a chairman and CEO, two vice chairmen, five senior vice presidents, two ordinary vice presidents, an executive director, and fourteen regular directors. He made a calculation: "If General Motors had the same ratio of titles to revenue as the Houston Texans, GM would boast 1,928 vice chairmen, 4,820 senior vice presidents, and 13,496 directors."