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July 5th, 2006

Pomp and what? / more on he/she and its ilk

by Barbara Wallraff

Mike Gleason, of Bangor, Maine, writes: “When people describe events as having plenty of ‘pomp and circumstance,’ it drives me crazy. Granted, that piece of music is frequently played as people are, for instance, graduating from high school or college -- but wouldn’t that event be filled with pomp and ‘ceremony’? How does one create ‘circumstance’ at an event?”

Dear Mike: Here’s a tidbit that may help you enjoy graduation season more next year: The phrase “pomp and circumstance” comes from Shakespeare. In the play “Othello,” Iago speaks of “all Qualitie, Pride, Pompe and Circumstance of glorious Warre.” Probably because of that line, “circumstance” still has its very old meaning of “display, formality, ceremony,” in addition to the more common meaning similar to “situation.”

But what, you might ask, does such a militaristic phrase have to do with high-school graduations? The answer lies with the piece of music you mention. In 1901, the British composer Edward Elgar wrote the first of five marches he titled “Pomp and Circumstance.” Yale awarded Elgar an honorary doctorate of music in 1905, and at the ceremony, the orchestra played the march in tribute to him. The audience loved it, and soon other schools adopted it for their graduation ceremonies. Now the tune is almost synonymous with graduation anywhere in North America.

By the way -- since readers keep asking -- students don’t graduate high school or college; they graduate from one of these institutions.

Rick Jameson, of Troy, Mich., wrote: “I was taught several decades ago that ‘he’ is the proper word, since in a case of unknown gender it is considered gender-neutral. Similarly, ‘man’ can be specifically male or gender-neutral.”
Yes, that was true as of several decades ago. But I remember the day in the 1980s when I stopped recommending the “he” solution. It enraged some young students -- male and female -- in a copy-editing class I was teaching, and I realized that using “he” alone inevitably draws attention away from the point a writer is trying to make.
Many readers wrote to suggest “(s)he” or “s/he.” The reason I didn’t propose these a few weeks ago is that I considered them unpronounceable. But Taneda Dawes, of Windsor, Ontario -- who said she has used “s/he” “on several occasions in legal or corporate documents” -- mentioned that if she were reading the word out loud, she would pronounce it “shee-hee.”

Come to find out, several American and Canadian dictionaries include “s/he,” reporting that it can be said aloud as “shee-hee” or “she or he.” I’m generally suspicious of virgules, or slashes, in writing. For instance, please don’t write “and/or.” Pick one: Do you mean “and” or “or”? But “s/he” in a training manual isn’t any clumsier or less clear than “he or she” or the alternatives I proposed. Charles? There’s another option for you.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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