The Professor and the Profession

By Robert Bechtold Heilman | Go to book overview

17
Post-Tomorrow and Tomorrow
and Tomorrow
An Aspect of the Humanistic Tongue

“Postmodernism”? Not really? It drives one to tautology: incredible beyond belief. But before plunging into that singularity, let me warm up by glancing at some other oddities, lesser and yet similar, of the humanistic tongue.

In his book on D. H. Lawrence published in 1959 Eliseo Vivas actually uses the word referend to refer to the thing referred to by a word—in recent academic argot, the “signified.” Perhaps this was the last time in the history of modern humanistic writing that the word so used, given its etymology, structure, and history, was the fitting word for the intended sense. Referend embodies the gerundive form, with its meaning of necessity, duty, or fitness—“[that which is] to be referred to.” Compare, of course, dividend (to be divided), corrigenda ([things] to be corrected), agenda ([things] to be done), Delenda est Carthago, Amanda, pudendum, multiplicand, analysand. But before adopting the “signifier-signified” option, and for that matter even while using it, humanistic writers have shown a singular fondness for the unfitting word. When they wish to refer to that-whichis-referred-to by some word, they with near unanimity use the word that means “referring,” that is, referent. They use a participial form instead of a gerundive, a form that means “do-ing” instead of “to be done.” Compare, of course, sentient (feeling), continent (containing), pertinent (pertaining), nutrient (nourishing), revenant (returning, as of a ghost). Best of all, compare reverent (revering) and reverend (to be revered). Humanists who speak of the “referent” of a word ought also to speak of “Reverent Smith” (I beg the question of whether the gentleman is capable of either feeling or eliciting reverence, especially when he is routinely deprived of the Mr. and

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