The conundrum of the Deputy Lieutenant

by Eleanor Dickey (University of Reading)

I have recently been informed that my application for UK citizenship has been successful, so I shall have the opportunity to swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. This leads to the discovery that when new citizens of the UK swear allegiance to the Queen, they are invited to shake the hand of her Lord Lieutenant for their county – unless that official is otherwise engaged, in which case they shake the hand of the interestingly-named Deputy Lieutenant. One could in theory call this person a lieutenant lieutenant, or a deputy deputy, but since the sixteenth century the title has in fact been Deputy Lieutenant. The Deputy Lieutenant is, apparently, not to be confused with the Vice Lord Lieutenant, though I cannot quite work out whether the Vice-Lieutenant mentioned in the OED is another term for the Deputy Lieutenant or for the Vice Lord Lieutenant.

Similarly, a university may have Pro Vice Chancellors, who may also be called Deputy Vice Chancellors, and some universities even have Deputy Pro Vice Chancellors, but there never seems to be a Vice Vice Chancellor. The Pro-Vicar is an official in the Catholic church, but the Vice Vicar is, as far as I know, unattested.

A few counterexamples can be found: the term Vice Viceroy is attested, though it is rare compared to the Deputy Viceroy (an official in, for example, the early government of Brazil). Some departments of the US government apparently contain a Deputy deputy secretary, a Deputy associate deputy secretary, a Principal deputy deputy assistant secretary, and/or a Deputy deputy assistant secretary. But despite this testimony to extreme bureaucracy, the basic linguistic principle seems to be that the ‘vice’ terms do not double up in a single title: a term already contained in the original title is not normally added to it again.

Explanations for the distinctions between these different terms abound, and no doubt these explanations work for particular titles. Certainly there is a real difference between a university’s Vice-Chancellor, who actually runs the institution, and a Pro-Chancellor who stands in for the Chancellor on ceremonial occasions. And if the Pro-Chancellor were to have a deputy, it would not be unreasonable to call him or her a Vice Pro-Chancellor and distinguish that official firmly from a Pro Vice Chancellor. But on a larger level the construction of such titles cannot be determined primarily by distinctions of meaning, since if it were, we would more often see the same term used twice in a row.

In Latin, as far as I can ascertain, the question does not arise. Despite the impressive nature of the imperial bureaucracy, there do not seem to be titles containing more than one iteration of the idea ‘acting for’. The proconsul is readily to be found, but he is joined neither by the official acting pro proconsule nor the one in vicem proconsularis. So why does English act as it does? Is the difference primarily linguistic or cultural? What do other languages do? This is a type of question to which Philological Society members are uniquely qualified to contribute, so I look forward with interest to their contributions!

Saussure vindicated

by George Walkden (University of Manchester)

A new paper in the journal PNAS provides the most striking and robust empirical support ever found for Ferdinand de Saussure’s notion of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign.

That’s not how the authors (henceforth Blasi et al. 2016) interpret it. Nor is it how it’s been reported in the many media outlets that have seized on it. For example, writing for the Guardian, David Shariatmadari describes their findings as the hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory. (The issue of why linguistics papers published in “science” journals get so much press while the same paper published in Diachronica or our own Transactions would be largely ignored is a topic for another blog post.) The authors, for their part, state that “These striking similarities call for a reexamination of the fundamental assumption of the arbitrariness of the sign”. ABC News goes even further: “The breakthrough finding disproves one of the most fundamental concepts in linguistics — the idea that the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning is unrelated”.

To see why these are probably overstatements, let’s go back to the source. Continue reading “Saussure vindicated”