Zoological analogies

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Back in 2003, Mark Liberman recounted a line attributed to Roman Jakobson when asked if Harvard should give Vladimir Nabokov a faculty position:

I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of Zoology?

And in 2006, I mentioned a snippy remark that The New Republic's Martin Peretz made about Garrison Keillor, who had panned Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville in The New York Times Book Review:

So maybe Keillor was actually an inspired choice. Why shouldn't a bird review an ornithologist?

Now the political historian Garry Wills provides another zoological analogy in his new memoir, Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer.

This is from the Philadelphia Inquirer review:

Although the book has its share of fine political reportage, Wills, the ultimate outsider, never felt comfortable actually joining a campaign press corps. Explaining why, he recounts an invitation from James Fallows, then a speechwriter for Carter, to join the 1976 campaign for awhile: "I answered that one can be an entomologist without becoming a bug."

[Update: Wills repeated the analogy on "The Colbert Report" last night. The relevant bit is at about 1:10 in the video.]


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 1:29 am

    Is "for awhile" becoming standard, at least for the Philadelphia Inquirer's editors? I'm having trouble with it – it's not the way the a- prefix normally works (as an adverb-former). Not to mention "get ahold".

  2. SlideSF said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 1:58 am

    I'm starting to see that alot more.

  3. D.O. said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 2:32 am

    I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of Zoology?

    Here's the same story with a twist from another Russian-American writer, Sergei Dovlatov.

    Наконец коллеги сказали:
    – Мы должны пригласить Набокова. Ведь он большой писатель.
    – Ну и что? — удивился Якобсон. — Слон тоже большое животное. Мы же не предлагаем ему возглавить кафедру зоологии!


    Finally, colleagues said:
    – We should invite Nabokov. He's a great author.
    – So what? — Jacobson was surprised — An elephant is also a great animal. We are not inviting him to head Department of Zoology!

    In Russian, the joke hangs on the polysemy of большой ("great" or "big"). Of course, I couldn't vouch for the accuracy of the story.

  4. Sniffnoy said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 3:20 am

    There's also the statement (commonly attributed to Feynman, whether he actually said it I don't know), "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds."

  5. Melodye said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 3:21 am

    Glad thing you linked back to the original Liberman post. For some reason, I misread you at first (three times over, in fact) and thought Liberman himself had said that about Nabokov, quoting snarkily from Jackobson. (And actually, the only reason I bothered to check was because of some Martin Amis essay I read on Nabokov long ago which would have had me believe the man was long dead by the time 2003 rolled around. Which his wiki confirmed he was). Anyway, it's a great line, but a thoroughly "piggish" thing to say, as Liberman noted.

    The Jakobson line is the best, I think; the others verge on precious, particularly the last.

  6. Chris Hunt said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 4:05 am

    The Duke of Wellington, when teased about having been born in Ireland, is reputed to have said "If a gentleman happens to be born in a stable, it does not follow that he should be called a horse".

  7. Peter G. Howland said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 5:47 am

    @Coby Lubliner, et al. – I'm not a linguist, but I am a long-time careful and curious reader. And let me tell you, one can get 'a hold' of 'a lot' of books in 73 years! The "a while/awhile" usage has had me intrigued for some time and I've come to a useful (for me) conclusion based on observed edited usage. If a defined period of time, e.g., a minute, a fortnight, a year, etc. can be assigned to "while", then it's two words. If, however, the duration is indefinable: "I haven't had calamari for awhile, can't remember how long"…then the one-word form is acceptable.
    BTW, although orthography evolves, "ahold" and "alot" are not yet acceptable options; they're just plain lazy stupidity.
    And don't get me started on "back seat/backseat"!

  8. Rodger C said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 7:54 am

    I would have thought that "a while" occurs as a noun, "awhile" as an adverb.

  9. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    "awhile" is what I call a "dictionary error": people use it because it's in the dictionary. "Everyday" is another example, in "We are open everyday."

  10. language hat said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    "awhile" is what I call a "dictionary error": people use it because it's in the dictionary.

    That's one of the most bizarre things I've read in a while. If it's in the dictionary, on what grounds do you call it an error?

  11. Alexander said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    I don't know the alleged date of the Feynman quip. But Barnett Newman, the painter, famously said: "Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds," where the use of "for" instead of "to" makes the "for the birds" pun overt. And Newman was recorded saying this in August of 1952, at the Woodstock Art Conference in Woodstock, NY, in discussion with the philosopher Susanne Langer. For any archivists of this rhetorical template reading this blog, here's a source, though of course you can unearth the Woodstock transcripts if necessary: http://www.barnettnewman.org/chronology.php

  12. empty said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    @Adrian: Jane Austen used "everyday" that way. I guess she could have used a good editor, huh?

    @Peter: Let me guess. Correct is "backseat driver" and "the back seat", but not the other way round? Do I want to get you started on front-door bell versus front doorbell?

  13. Faldone said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 9:25 am

    'Ahold', 'alot.' What's next? Combining 'a' and 'nother' to give us 'another'?

  14. Bob said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    Can't find the citation but Gore Vidal once said something to the effect of "Wanting to meet a writer because you enjoy his or her work is like wanting to meet a goose because you like foie gras"

  15. mgh said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    Wills also used the line on Stephen Colbert last night, if you prefer new media to print:


  16. Sid Smith said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    I can see that there are sentences where you can't replace "a while" with "awhile". But are there any sentences in which "awhile" (used correctly) couldn't be replaced by a noun such as "a year", "ages", "a bit", etc?

    The online dictionaries can't think of any:

    Dictionary.com gives: "After stopping in Hadley awhile, we drove to Deerfield."

    The Cambridge Dic has: "Stay awhile and rest," and "I read awhile, then slept."

    The Compact Oxford has: "we paused awhile".

    [Later] Driven by indignantion, I finally got off my *rse and checked The OED — which is downright sniffy about "awhile". Along with the now-familiar could-be-"a bit" examples, it editorialises that "awhile" is, "Strictly two words…Improperly written together…"

    So "a while" is always right!

  17. Ellen K. said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    @language hat: I think Adrian Bailey's example makes clear what he/she means by it. Just because "awhile" is a word doesn't mean that it's always correct to write it as one word.

  18. Ellen K. said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    @Peter G. Howland: Let me assure you, sometimes using "alot" is not lazy nor stupid nor ignorant, but rather a conscious choice to do something that's outside the norm but has a certain sense to it.

  19. Sid Smith said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    On second thoughts, that bit from The OED about "Improperly written together" is misleading. But I stand by The OED being decidedly "sniffy" about "a while".

  20. Joe said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    I think the best place to look about "awhile" vs. "a while" is Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Can't link, but their general point is "don't worry too much about it."

  21. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    @Ellen K. but why exactly would it be “incorrect” or “an error”? What’s the rationale?

    I think I’ve seen this entomologist/bug metaphor somewhere before, but google books is not helping.

  22. Randy Alexander said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    I guess one could become a linguist without learning a foreign language.

  23. Kevin Iga said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    Then there's this blog post about the word "alot".


  24. Rodger C said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    @language hat, Leonardo Boiko: I think Adrian Bailey's point is that people sometimes check a dictionary for the spelling of a word without investigating, or being able to understand, the account of its usage.

  25. Nijma said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    Garrison Keillor once said, " You can no more become a Christian by sitting in church than you can become a car by sleeping in your garage."

  26. John said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    Can't find the citation but Gore Vidal once said something to the effect of "Wanting to meet a writer because you enjoy his or her work is like wanting to meet a goose because you like foie gras"

    @Bob: Isn't this the essence of celebrity? Somebody accomplished at one thing becomes sought after for everything.

  27. Kevin Iga said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    This business about "awhile" gets at a question I've had for some time: Is there a linguistic definition of "word"? In this case, a definition of "word" that will decide if, in spoken English, "a while" (as in "this will take a while") is a single word or two? Of course there's the orthographic convention, but I'm talking about English as a spoken, natural language, without regard to how it's written.

    Phonetically: Is there a pause, or other feature, that English speakers use between words? I don't think I hear other people pausing after each word, but it's possible there's something that is very hard to consciously detect (but is strong enough to be unconsciously learned by new language learners).
    Phonologically: Are there phonological rules that depend on word boundaries in English that will help decide this issue? I remember seeing phonological rules that involve word boundaries in phonology class, but I don't remember what they were, or if they really depended on word boundaries or something else. And I remember not being satisfied that the concept of "word boundary" was really defined. Not to mention the issue of whether or not such phonological rules would apply to the example "a while", to help us in this case.
    Morphologically or syntactically: Are there rules that operate on the level of words that can detect the distinction between one word and two? I know of ways to test constituency, but that doesn't seem to help here: a word would be a constituent, but if "a while" is two words, it might also be a constituent.

    I can think of the example "a little while" but that may also be a separate lexical item: I can't seem to generate others like *"a big while", *"a somewhat little while", etc. The uses of "a while" tend to be in places that can take a DP: "This will take a while" = "This will take three years" = "This will take a blink of an eye". That might suggest "a" is a separate word if it is to be a Det., but I note I can't say *"This will take the same while as my last project" or *"This will take my while more than yours".

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    According to Brian Boyd's biography of Nabokov, page 303, Jakobson said, "Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?" Boyd describes the context of the remark.

    His footnote is "Elena Levin to Véra Nabokov, February 20, 1957, Vladimir Nabokov Archives; Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Part, 263; Harry Levin in Donaghue, 'VN: The Great Enchanter' from TS, Vladimir Nabokov Archives."

    (I've expanded abbreviations. Véra Nabokov was Vladimir's wife. Harry Levin was the chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Harvard, where Jakobson was the star Slavist. Elena Zarudnaya Levin was Harry's wife. TS isn't in Boyd's list of abbreviations—is it transcript?)

    I love Google Books and Amazon's "Look Inside".

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    @Kevin Iga: For me, the opposite of a little while is a long while, and it can be very long, rather long, etc.

  30. I.D. Mercer said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    I share Jerry Friedman's intuition about "a long while", "a very long while", etc. Those seem "correct" in my dialect although admittedly I might not say them very often.

    @language hat and Leonardo Boiko: I think what was meant by "dictionary error" is that people note that it's in the dictionary and just think "Ok, I must be correct then", not pausing to think, "it's *a* word, but is it the right word for the context?"

    People using "it's" where most use "its" could be making a "dictionary error", perhaps — some such people could be thinking "I know 'it's' is a word, so I'll go with that."

  31. Ellen K. said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    @Leonard Boiko:

    If your question is specifically about "awhile", you will have to ask Adrian Bailey. That was his/her assertion, not mine.

    If your question is why can something that's in the dictionary as a single word sometimes be an error written as one word, well, because sometimes the meaning is of the two separate words used together, not as the single word. Like, "the boys are all ready to go", meaning "all the boys are ready to go". This would be incorrect with "already" rather than "all ready" even though "already" is in the dictionary. A briefcase that one puts books in could be described a book case, but it would be incorrect to call it a bookcase.

  32. GeorgeW said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    @Kevin Iga: Yes, there are various tests that can be used to distinguish a word. I can't recall all the tests, but one that I do recall is word stress. As an example, compound words have different stress patterns than a combination of words:

    1. The White House is on Pa. Avenue (stress on white)
    2. That is a beautiful white house. (each are stressed independently).

    I think the stress, and related phonetics, with 'awhile' and 'a while' differ as well. I don't think we can de-schwa the /a/ in 'awhile,' where in 'a while' we can pronounce the full vowel /ay/ (Sorry I can't get IPA symbols in the LL form.):

    3. *She arrived aywhile later. (the /a/ requires a schwa)
    4. She spend ay while with us. (the /a/ doesn't require a schwa).

  33. Xmun said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    TS usually means "typescript".

  34. Clayton Burns said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    Elephant. Bird. Bug.

    Sonnet 73:
    That time of year…the twilight of such day…the glowing of such fire…

    The same diminishing series.
    Next Ben will be talking about a bacteria.

  35. John Cowan said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    TS is a silly convention by people who don't admit that MSS can be typed because of the etymology of manuscriptum. Next we will hear that people who type with their feet (because of a disability) produce FSS, or perhaps TS will just be reinterpreted as 'toe script'.

  36. Disfraz said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    I've heard that asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a zoologist how many pets they have.

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

    @Xmun and John Cowan: Thanks.

    I don't think the use of TS has to be the etymological fallacy. I can imagine you might sometimes want to say whether a manuscript is handwritten or typed, so you might want an abbreviation for typed MS. Now as for why Boyd didn't abbreviate "February"…

  38. Aaron Davies said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

    i'm fairly sure you can't see word boundaries reliably on a spectrogram–many intra-word, inter-syllable pauses are longer than inter-word pauses. (i don't have a source handy, though i think it's been discussed on LL before.)

  39. Aaron Davies said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    we should bring back "holograph" for handwritten MSS, just to confuse the issue further.

  40. Xmun said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:10 am

    John Cowan: "Next we will hear that people who type with their feet (because of a disability) produce FSS"

    Surely that should be PSS? Hang on, that's already taken.

  41. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:22 am

    My mother informed me last night that Picasso said, "I think about critics the way birds think about ornithologists". Though looking on Google it looks like it was Barnett Newman, and it was "Aesthetics for artists is what ornithology is for birds".

  42. Peter G. Howland said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:22 am

    @ Ellen K.: My issue was not about taking linguistic chances; I love doing it, even at the risk of enduring critical rhubarbs or being the recipient of withering bilabial fricatives executed with tongue-numbing apical brio. I enjoy putting words together in ways that are outside the norm, but using “alot” in meaningful writing merely displays blatant inattention to or disregard for “correctness”, not just chancing a fun-loving rebellion against convention.
    @empty: re: “backseat / back seat”…You got it! My mother-in-law, Fido, likes to ride in the back seat with our dog, Rex. The dog doesn’t have much to say, but Fido insists on criticizing my driving; she’s a regular backseat driver. Our other dog, Blackie, likes to be in the back yard. He doesn’t go out to the front yard because that’s where the front-yard pink flamingoes are. Blackie’s a regular backyard dog.

    My readings in popular fiction and other venues suggest that there is now an entire cohort of ill-informed (or lazy) editors who have seen “backseat” and “backyard” as single words and have hence presumed that they’re correct in every context. And, of course, they are not; the margins of my books are bloody with corrections!
    But Orthographic Evolution be praised! As soon as I see “driversseat” and “frontyard” as standards to designate location, I will (reluctantly) acquiesce to these new conventions of editorial silliness.

    BTW, empty, I once installed a decorative front-door bell at my main entrance and another utilitarian rear-door bell at the back of the house. No one used the fancy front doorbell, everybody went around back and rang the rustic rear doorbell.
    You can try these examples on for ‘awhile’, just don’t use them ‘everyday’ (sic).

  43. Bob Lieblich said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    And who, upon entering some retail establishment near a beach, has not seen this sign: "No barefeet"?

  44. parse said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    Edmund Wilson's memoir City Boy recounts the anecdote with the elephant question being put to Nabokov himself and claims he replied, "If it's a particularly articulate elephant, yes."

  45. Bob C said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    I recall a quip by a drama critic (I forget who) who said you don't have to be able to lay an egg to tell if one is rotten.

  46. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    It's a bit of a loose analogy though, isn't it, this zoological one? Ornithology is the study of birds, zoology can be the study of elephants. But art and literary criticism are primarily the studies of art and literature rather than artists and writers; likewise re the one attributed to Feynman, philosophy of science is the study of science much more than the study of scientists. It would have worked better if they'd been discussing whether to give the Literature chair to Lolita.

  47. Nathan Myers said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

    My Random House defines "awhile" as, exactly, "for a while". I find that entirely unimpeachable. It makes "for awhile" into a mechanically correctable typo.

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