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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

`Semantic Instability' : Word-Watching at Dartmouth


AMONG teachers of English a reference to Dartmouth has special meaning, signifying a professional concern about the work they do. This I did not know until reading Wayne C. Booth's The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occassions 1967-1988 1 which I plucked randomly last summer from the row of newly published books assembled on the fourth level of stacks, near the circulation desk in Baker Library.

Booth has taught rhetoric in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago since 1962, where he is the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor. He recounts how Dartmouth in 1966 hosted the first of several international conferences on the teaching of English, the second occurring in England, at York, six years later. York, like Dartmouth, also has a shorthand meaning among people like Booth who ponder the status of professional activity among their peers.

Booth explains: 'Some two score of us critics, grammarians, historians, philologists, educationists, novelists, and poets-teachers all-gathered first for several weeks at Dartmouth College. After reports on our endeavors had been published, many of us met again, with many more teachers, in York, England, to continue the stimulating exchange. In one sense, "nothing came of Dartmouth or York," as some say, though the published reports are still worth reading. But by 1971, the conferences had produced enough discussion for "Dartmouth" and "York" to become buzz words, meaning something like "the (admirable/hopeless/promising/silly) effort by the profession to make sense of what we do."' 2

For Dartmouth to serve as a buzz word is not a rare occurrence. Look up the famous Dartmouth College Case that Daniel Webster of the class of 1801 argued persuasively before the United States Supreme Court and you find it is formally titled 'The Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward.' 3 In 1950 and 1951 the Dartmouth Amendment' was a shorthand reference to a proposal William McCarter presented to the National Collegiate Athletic Association barring colleges from paying the travel and entertainment costs of recruiting high school athletes, and prohibiting college coaches from testing the athletic prowess of these sports stars before they were formally admitted. 4 Although the NCAA delegates ratified 'the Dartmouth Amendment' the coaches at many member schools promptly violated its provisions. 5

Philip Babcock Gove of the class of 1922, the foremost lexicographer educated at Dartmouth in this century, was a close observer of how established words are imbued with new senses of meaning. As an editor with the G. and C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, publishers of Webster dictionaries since Noah Webster issued his first in 1847, Gove was superbly positioned to detect these linguistic accretions. He devised a term to describe the process: 'semantic instability.'6

Does anyone monitor the way Dartmouth has generated language usage about itself? Last summer I randomly plucked from the Baker shelves a copy of Goodbye Highland Yankee: Stories of a North Country Boyhood, a memoir by Scott E. Hastings Jr., who was born in McIndoe Falls, Vermont, in 1924, but with his family moved to West Lebanon, New Hampshire, at the age of four and was raised in Hanover's neighbor to the south. Hastings recalls how residents of West Lebanon and White River Junction, its sister community across the Connecticut River, protected their turf against Dartmouth students in classic town-gown confrontations that occasionally led to ignominious brawling. The Dartmouth undergraduates were not hesitant about intruding in places where they were not welcomed by locals who exerted a territorial defensiveness about their own bailiwicks. Hastings contributed to Dartmouth nomenclature in his description of tribal encounters between Dartmouth effrontery and local disdain for trespassers: `From nearby Hanover, New Hampshire, the Dartmouth College boys, known collectively by the residents of the two towns as "pinheads," tested this assumption periodically in the local beer parlors-usually to their cost.'7

Undergraduate lingo, including the argot inherited and devised by students to describe locals, is a subject that merits ongoing study and reportage, but the task is done only casually. Dartmouth is indebted to a Harvard man, Benjamin Homer Hall, for preserving such specimens of Dartmouth slang of the 1850's as gonuses, meaning uncouth or stupid fellow, and chawing, meaning a deception or trick and similar to another word, gum. As a senior at Harvard in 1851 Hall queried classmates and students at other eastern colleges for a glossary of student language he published in A Collection of College Words and Customs, 8 a book now much treasured by word-watchers. The vitality and distinctiveness of Dartmouth locutions in the 1980's can serve as verbal identifiers. Rachel Levy of the class of 1986 tells how she perused a salad bar in a Pizza Hut restaurant in Buffalo, New York, and pronounced its appearance as 'grim.' Use of 'grim' caused a waiter to ask if she went to Dartmouth. 'Yeah, I graduated in '86,' she replied. He admitted to being a Dartmouth student. Other words she says, such as rally, awesome, megaboot, and tool, reveal a Dartmouth education as students and young alumni roam the girdled earth.9

Although college commencements are famous for stimulating exalted rhetoric that is eminently forgettable soon after the graduates shed their caps and gowns, it is heartening to notice how Dartmouth commencements have fostered words of lasting relevance. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's admonition in 1953 not to join the book burners, a pointed piece of advice during the era of McCarthyism, is framed and exhibited in the main corridor of Baker Library 10 Sixty years ago, when John D. Rockefeller Jr., advised Dartmouth's class of 1930's to 'So live that you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell,' his blunt advice became memorable by being enshrined in a popular anthology of pithy aphorisms.11

Has anyone assembled a compilation of how Dartmouth graduates have contributed to the American language by coining phrases and regionalisms? George Henry Atkinson of Dartmouth's class of 1843 went west after he was ordained a Congregational minister in Newbury, Vermont, in 1847 and was the first person to use the term 'inland empire' for describing the high country of eastern Washington and Oregon.12 Richard Hovey of the class of 1885 reversed a familiar American war cry of expansionism-manifest destiny-when he composed his poem of July 1898, 'Unmanifest Destiny. '13

Alumni have functioned adeptly as sloganeers. When John Cotton Dana of the class of 1878 was asked in 1912 to supply a Latin quotation for a new building at Newark State College -- today's Kean College of New Jersey -- he was unable to find a handy phrase that seemed suitable. So he composed in English one of his own devising: 'Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.' Now it serves as the college's motto.14 Beardsley Ruml of the class of 1915 was able to persuade Americans during World War II to accept tax deductions withheld from payroll checks by labeling his proposal a 'pay-as-you-go' plan.15 Ruml's talent for clothing a doleful subject in felicitous prose was majestic: 'If you ever hear of me dropping dead on a tennis court,' he said, 'you'll know it was because I was crossing it on my way to a Scotch-and-soda.'16

Dartmouth's motto has application far beyond the Hanover campus, according to Edward C. Atwater, a medical historian at the University of Rochester, who appreciates the loneliness of a humanist in a workplace populated by biomedical scientists. 'Dartmouth's motto, "Vox clamantis in deserto" speaks well of the plight of a nonscience scholar in the medical center,' he suggests.17 Harold Goddard Rugg of the class of 1906 and a long-time librarian, has the rare distinction of being memorialized by the naming of a botanical specimen, a fern, in his honor.18

Dartmouth has a registrar of students; does it also need a registrar of buzz words and other linguistic derivations? 'Semantic instability' deserves a watchful eye from a stable Dartmouth perch.

Editorial Note

Those interested in Dartmouth's student vocabulary can pursue the topic further in Baker's Special Collections. For a start, check the heading 'College slang' in the card index to The Dartmouth and look at the contents of the small folder under 'Slang' in the vertical file. There are two papers written for Anthropology 40 that will be useful as well. One is 'The Language of Dartmouth' (1969?) by Charles Meyrick and the other is 'Something There Is That Does Not Love a Blank Wall: A Study of the Latrinalia of Dartmouth College' (1969) by Charles Trainer. For those willing to dig, there are hundreds of student letters and diaries that would produce examples of student language over the years.


1. (University of Chicago Press, 1988)

2. Booth, Vocation of a Teacher, 92, fn.

3. 17 U. S. 518.

4. The New York Times, 15 January 1950. Section 5:3; Frank Furlong Mathias, Albert D.

Kirwan (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky 1957), 36, 106-107.

5. Albert D. Kirwan, a historian at the University of Kentucky who served his school as faculty chair of athletics in the early 1950's, describes these violations and recounts how he devised a coalition between the Southeastern Athletic Conference and the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference to retain 'the Dartmouth Amendment' in a way that is helpfully informative for historians of Ivy League athletics. See Mathias, Albert D. Kirwan, 36, 106-107, 112. William McCarter held varied positions at Dartmouth, being at times English professor and assistant librarian as well as, from 1937-1954, director of athletics.

6. John Willinsky 'Cutting English at the Bias: Five Lexicographers in Pursuit of the New' American Speech: A Quaterly of Linguistic Usage 63, No. I (Spring 1988): 51.

7. Scott E. Haitings, Jr., Goodbye HighlandYankee: Stories of a North Country Boyhood (Chelsea, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1988), 3-4.

8. Rev. & enl. ed. (Cambridge: John Bartlett, 1856). First published in 1851; Charles Lafayette Todd,'LLingua Collegiensis Circa 1850,' Verbatim: The Language Quarterly 9 No. 4 (Spring 1983): 4.

9.Rachel Levy letter to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 82, No. 3. (November 1989): 8-9.

10. President Eisenhower's presence at Dartmouth's 1953 commencement caused the exercise to be moved from the Bema, their traditional location, to the more spacious front lawn of Baker Library, which causes this word-watcher to observe that I've never heard of another college that maintained a campus site called a Bema.

11. Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Haper Book of American Quotations (New York: Harper & Row 1988), 292, noting that the advice has also been attributed re an engineer who worked on construction of the Panama Canal.

12. Howard M. Corning, ed. Dictionary of Oregon History (Portland: Binford & Mort, 1956), 14.

13.Richard Hovey Along the Trail: A Book of Lyrics by Richard Hovey (Boston: Small, Maynard& Co.. 1898), 16-17.

14.Suzy Platt, ed., Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service (Washington. D.C.: Library of Congress,1989), 337.

15.Ruml, trustee oi the College irom 1946 untii his death (as life trustee) in 1960,

suggested the plan in 1943 when it was adopted as part of a tax measure.

16. New Yorker 18, No. 30 (12 September 1942): 12.

17. Edward C. Alwater, 'Is Nonintellectualism Invading the Medical School?' in Jerome J. Bylebyl, ed. Teaching the History of Medicine at a Medical Center (Baltimore, Md.:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 100.

18.Harold G. Rugg spent forty-seven years in Baker Library retiring as associate librarian in 1953. The official name of the fern, so designated in 1940, is Osmunda Ruggii.