The State of the Language 'For the Ear Trieth Words, as the Mouth Tasteth Meat'


J. H. ROBINSON teaches romance philology — or perhaps it is animal husbandry or the psychology of salesmanship — at Mazda University. In the catalogue and other official publications he has long been Professor John Henry Robinson. Now, who shall he be in the classroom? at an informal lecture to a women’s club? in the newspaper paragraph reporting his talk? in the salutation of a letter from an acquaintance? on the envelope of the same letter? To his students, his neighbors, his correspondents, — and, for all a stranger can tell, to himself, — he may be Professor Robinson in every one of these connections. Indeed, he has been known to remain so in the grave, or at any rate on the lips of his widow as long as she survives him.

At the risk of appearing insufficiently reverent to dignities and hierarchies I am going to say that so far as I am concerned he is plain Mr. John Henry Robinson. If he is one of those who really like being addressed in letters as ‘ Dear Professor Robinson ’ — or, horribly, as simple Professor in conversation — he had better leave me off the list of his correspondents and interlocutors, for I could about as easily style a clergyman Reverend.

Back in an era for which the sophisticated Dartmouth College of these times has learned to blush, a hulking football guard, having for once gone soundly prepared to a class in French conversation and composition and feeling a natural anxiety to prove it, stopped at the desk to say in a hoarse whisper: ‘Hey, Prof, gimme a hack at the comp, willya?' The course, as it happened, was being conducted by a mere Mister, — one with the rank of instructor only, — so that the respect voiced, if any, was for a dignity that was not there. In the Harvard University of the same day, per contra, one heard the titled great referring to their peers as Mr. Kittredge, Mr. James, Mr. Palmer, Mr. Royce. The most widely loved of them all — who, by exception, was spoken and thought of by all students as Dean Briggs; some of the freshmen were astonished to discover that ‘Dean’ was not a given name — once suggested to me, an undergraduate, that I go to see Mr. Neilson about something; and Barrett Wendell, when a scared freshman approaching him for advice punctiliously used his catalogue title, was quite capable of pointing out (in a super-Oxford accent) that he had not the happiness to be either a bootblack or the pianist of a burlesque show.

In general the smaller and younger colleges — and, in some parts of the country, the very secondary schools — have long tended toward the former Dartmouth extreme of professoring any and all teachers for social purposes, ex officiis; whereas the larger and older universities have tended toward the Harvard extreme of professoring nobody except in rigidly official connections. The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, long before it achieved (via football) a nation-wide celebrity, developed a wondrous student argot in which a new instructor was a kid prof and the non-professorial teachers collectively were the kid faculty. But on the opposite fringe of the South the University of Virginia got up an association for ‘the encouragement of the use of Mister as applied to all men,’including especially the professoriate.

If anyone can suggest a wholesome and wholesale way of coping with this sociolinguistic problem, I trust he will confide it to me, for thus far I have been unable to evolve any better compromise than to salute a bona fide practising professor as ’Dear Mr. X.’ and then direct the envelope to Professor X. as a sop to identification, letting the recipient think me as crude or careless as he may. Sometimes he is frankly revolted by what he calls the inconsistency: though I am not sure that it is more inconsistent to call a man Mr. inside an envelope and Professor outside than it is to salute him as ‘Dear Bill’ and superscribe him as William.

The entire social relationship between academic and non-academic folk would obviously benefit by a general freeing from constraint and self-consciousness; but it is difficult to see how this is to be brought about pending a general assent on both sides to the principle that a man’s academic rank is not the entire substance of his social identity. We do not (outside the weekly Time) refer to a man as Salesman Jones, Realtor Babbitt, Magnate Sloan, or Composer Taylor: why, then, should either his dignity or ours require us to style him Professor Einstein?


BALANCE. On the N. B. C. programme called ‘Information, Please’ these ears heard that lively critic and nimble master of ceremonies, Mr. Clifton Fadiman, say: ‘And now we’ll get on with the balance of the programme.’ Mr. Franklin P. Adams, present and participating, did not snort, chuckle, or remark: ‘I suppose you mean the rest of it.'

KIND OF A. From Los Angeles, California, comes the following contribution: —

In no book or article on usage have I found a passage on the intrusive article in such expressions as ‘I want some sort of a handle for this box.’ One who might say that would probably say ’I want some sort of employment for this boy.’ He would feel that employment is abstract (alas, alarmingly so in our country), but would not be aware that handle, as he used it, is abstract also. . . . The abstractness is perhaps always recognized when the subject is abstract, as ‘Goodness is a kind of beauty.’ But when the subject is specific the intrusive article is likely to appear, as ‘This crystal is a kind of a salt.’ Shakespeare, I think, avoided the error: ‘Marry, sir,’ says Maria, ‘sometimes he is a kind of puritan.’

The only indispensable use of the incorrect article that I know of is in ‘What kind of a noise annoys an oyster?’ — H. P. EARLE

My correspondent cites a supporting definition from Boners: ‘An abstract noun is something you can’t see when you are looking at it.’ The idea is that a handle is an object that you can take hold of, whereas handle after kind of should name no object at all, but a collective identity or principle of classification — handledom, so to speak. A class of (plural and specific) students, as found in one classroom at one time, doubtless contains several classes of (singular and abstract) student, as the dull, the industrious, the brilliant, the bored.

-OUGH. Mr. Earle’s annoyed oyster reminds me that our popular lore is particularly rich in tongue-twisters, rhymed rules, informal mnemonic devices, phonetic vagaries illustrated, and so on. (Do schoolboys still circulate sentences of patter that, when spoken rapidly, trip the unwary tongue into pronouncing indecorous and unprintable words?) Perhaps someone can tell me what virtuoso of melody devised the classic-sounding pentameter that illustrates six of our seven pronunciations of -ough:

Though the tough cough and hiccough plough me through.

And perhaps someone can devise a plausible hexameter that will illustrate all seven.