“Phillis reverences Cain in line 7.”

Reading extensively in an author’s works, or even with deep involvement reading a single work by an author, can lead us to feel an intimacy with the writer that is almost like a personal relationship, albeit one-sided in that only the reader is aware of the relationship. It’s also possible to fall in love with, or develop protective feelings for, a character in a literary work (again, one-sided—alas, if that character is Lord Peter Wimsey and the reader falls so deeply in love with him that no flesh-and-blood man can compete…). But even then, the reader does not begin referring to the writer, or the character, by nickname, in the case of the character, or first name, in the case of the author. In an earlier time, not even the characters called each other by first name: how late in Pride and Prejudice before Elizabeth Bennet permits herself to call the man she comes to love anything but “Mr. Darcy,” for instance?

Students, on the other hand, seem to get chummy very quickly with the characters and authors they read, blithely throwing protocols to the wind.  At its most extreme, this practice can blow a student to some pretty strange places. I once had a student who wrote that her favorite composer was a German gentleman called Bay Toven. (Evidently she knew of him only by way of her ear…) After the first sentence, she referred to him for the rest of the paper simply as “Bay”: “Bay could not hear his own music, being unfortunately deaf.” This was, remember, her favorite composer.

On a side note, I have to mention that some students don’t use any kind of name for their professors. In the last few years I have received many emails that begin simply “Hey.” I might not mind so much if they went on, “I just had to say THANX for that great class!” But they rarely do; usually it’s “I lost the syllabus, so could you send me another one?” or “I worked hard on that paper and think a C is too low of a grade.” Yeah, Hey.

But let’s get back to Phillis.

“Phillis” is Phillis Wheatley, a serious and delightful poet of the eighteenth century, the second published African American and first published African-American woman. Named Phillis after the ship that brought her from Africa as a slave, and Wheatley for the family who bought her in Boston, she showed aptitude for classical languages and literature at an early age, talents the Wheatleys supported and helped to develop. She was freed at their death, but had never truly been treated as a slave while with their family; they had even traveled to England for her sake because they thought she had a better chance there of being recognized as a writer. My students expect protest poetry from her, but what they read instead is elegant verse in the forms and styles popular at the time, and expressions of gratitude for the life she lived.

The poem my student is referring to is one of the latter: “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She praises the good fortune that brought her to a land where she could become a Christian. The poem is lovely, if somewhat disturbing to a modern reader whose “racial” ideas are less accepting of 18th-century definitions than hers. Here it is, although you can follow the link above and read it at The Poetry Foundation with links to more information:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Would you refer to her as “Phillis”?

Now, let’s get to my other problem with this sentence: the word “reverences.” Of course my student didn’t mean “reverences”—that is, “regard[s] or treat[s] with reverence,” “reverence” here meaning “honor or respect felt or shown” or “a gesture of respect, such as a bow.” He wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I asked him why he thought Phillis was bowing to Cain in line 7. But he had heard, on many an educated lip, “reverences” used in the way he uses it, meaning “refers to,” and he wanted to use it too. He hasn’t read many educated papers, though, or he would know that the mot du jour he heard is not “reverence,” but “reference.”

He’s chosen a word that’s doubly wrong: the one he’s written doesn’t mean what he thinks it does (and is completely bizarre when used with Cain!), and the word he thinks it is shouldn’t be used that way either. But I may be the last living objector to the use of “reference” as a verb, and especially as the kind of verb he’s trying to use.

What ever happened to words and phrases such as “alludes to,” “refers to,” “makes reference to,” “mentions,” “points to,” “compares…with”? I know English is a living language, but “references” as a verb seems to have swept all these other, more traditionally correct, terms suddenly away. I hear it from the mouths of scholars as well as the mouths of babes; it peppers academic papers so thickly as to cause sneezing. Why it caught on I cannot say, unless it just sounds so intellectual? or is so lazy? or maybe both?

Here’s friend Webster’s New Collegiate as of 1973, which to me isn’t so long ago:

“Reference (n): 1. the act of referring or consulting; 2: a bearing on the matter; 3: something that refers, as allusion or mention, something that refers a reader to another source of information, consultation of sources of information; 4: one referred to or consulted as a person to whom inquiries as to character or ability can be made, a statement of the qualifications of a person seeking employment, a source of information to which a reader is referred, or a book such as a dictionary or encyclopedia concerning useful facts or information.”

Webster does acknowledge a verb form: “Reference (vt): 1: to supply with references, to cite in or as a reference; 2: to put in a form, as a table, adapted to easy reference.”

Neither of these definitions describes the usage employed by my student (and so many, many others).

“Phillis” doesn’t reference Cain; she makes reference to, or refers to, or alludes to Cain. She’s not interested in his opinion, his authority, or his recommendation; she isn’t suggesting that he is a source of information or turning him into a table. Actually she’s using a then-popular figure of speech in an interesting way: the conflation of “black” of skin and “black” of sin implied in the simile becomes one single attribute, and since Christians pray that God refine their own sin-blackened hearts they should also recognize that people who are black can be “refined,” or purified, to fit their souls equally well for heaven. She is urging Christians to view people of the “sable race” as their potential fellow angels. Her mention of Cain is, then, a learned allusion, full of conceptual substance, not a “referencing.”

But I’m afraid that this is yet another battle I am doomed to lose. Once an error or grotesquery becomes widespread among multiple classes of users, one aging prof, armed with no matter how mighty a sword, can’t withstand it. I fear it is too late for the blithe users of “reference” as a verb to have their sin refined away, because far from recognizing it as a sin, they hold it in an unbreakable embrace—yea, reverence it.

I’ll just have to try to become deaf to it. Like Bay.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

23 responses to ““Phillis reverences Cain in line 7.”

  • Shreya

    This was a delightful read.

  • KokkieH

    Hey ( 😉 ), maybe Bay’s friends actually called him that. And he called them Mo, Cho and Shoe.

    Regarding “reverences”, my first thought upon reading the post title was, wouldn’t “reveres” be a better option? According to Oxford “reverence” is only used as a noun, so that would imply yet another error in that word choice. Your thoughts?

    More generally, teaching English to non-first language high school students one of the many common problems I identified was their apparent inability to distinguish between the pronunciation of “v” and “f”. It seems this happens in the first language world as well. (On the other hand, my students struggled to comprehend that if one word was spelled with “v” and another with “f” that they were, in fact, completely different words…)

    • RAB

      What a new slant on the musical world! Would have made talking with Tschai easier, too!
      Your observations are all interesting. I’d go one wider and say that a lot of my students have little sense of homonyms at all–if words sound alike, or pretty much alike, they must be interchangeable. Part of it is lax hearing/pronunciation; part of it is failure to READ, or at least to read observantly. Maybe we should start a pool on which ten words will be left standing in twenty years?

    • Sr Eleanor

      I can think of one context in which “reverence” is used as a noun: in Christian liturgy. The priest “reverences” the altar (by kissing it), the people “reverence” the icons, etc. I’m surprised the OED doesn’t have it.

      • RAB

        To “reverence” the altar is to verb it, and the dictionary does have that use. And I’m very fond of the noun that means bow or curtsey, as in “She made a reverence to the queen”–the same idea, clearly: expressing respect or adoration. How horrid to imagine Phillis Wheatley kissing Cain!

      • KokkieH

        Hmm. You made me check the Oxford Online Dictionary and it does in fact list “reverence” as a verb. But my print copy only lists it as a noun.

        Still, “reverences” feels wrong to me. I much prefer “reveres”.

  • sarahjesusnlily

    Phillis’s poem was absolutely lovely! I’m so glad you wrote this post about it! And yes, I would refer to her as Phillis because that was her name.

    • RAB

      Would you call her “Phillis” when writing an academic paper about her? Similarly, Dylan Thomas was the subject of my dissertation, but never in writing about him or teaching his works in class have I called him just “Dylan,” except when talking about him in connection with his father (when calling them both “Thomas” would not have kept the ideas clear).
      Nice to hear from a fan of Wheatley’s! Her history is very interesting and her works are, yes, lovely.

  • hejafred

    I never miss one of your posts! Keep fighting the good fight.

  • darwod1

    You didn’t experience any sorrow or regret’ even for a moment- that Ms. Wheatley had been forcibly removed from her home & taught that her culture was inferior to western culture?

    • RAB

      That’s what I meant by “lovely, if somewhat disturbing to a modern reader whose ‘racial’ ideas are less accepting of 18th-century definitions than hers.” What can be hard about reading literature from another time or place is to read it as the writer intended, without imposing our own points of view, cultural differences, or philosophical convictions on it. Phillis Wheatley WAS convinced that the culture in Boston in the 1770s was better than the culture she had been taken from in Senegal (probably) when she was 8 years old, and that Christianity was the true faith. We may be angry about what was done to her and feel that she was wrong about cultural and religious superiority, but that makes no difference to HER, or to her poem; my “feelings of sorrow or regret” may be part of class discussion but cannot be a judgment on the poet or the poem. Of course in class we talked about her “take” on slavery–this was American Literature from Its Beginnings to 1865, and we were reading a lot of pieces on slavery, including Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of his life and fabulous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” But my blog is about student writing, not about the issues involved in the literature.

  • SusanP

    I discovered Wheatley several years ago when I was tutoring a young man. I was delighted to find her. I wonder why she was not included in my English Lit. class.

    Americans have broken down the barrier of good manners. It is a pity.

    • RAB

      That dead-white-males canon! Of course, opening it up has meant that lit texts get bigger and bigger and bigger…and making a syllabus gets harder, and more heartbreaking, since the semesters haven’t gotten any longer to accommodate them!
      Yes, we seem to have completely lost the idea of formality and intimacy. At college there was a beloved professor of theatre, David Brubaker, whom all of us who worked on shows eventually called “Mr. B.” (In Theater History and other classes, he was, of course, “Mr. Brubaker” — it was considered low-class to refer to a Ph.D. as “Doctor” back then, and MBAs and Ph.Ds and MAs and all were addressed as “Mr.” or “Miss” or “Mrs.”–old days!) The day I graduated I stopped in at his house afterward to wish him and his amazing wife good-bye, and he said “Please, call me David.” And I looked at him, in all his warm and dignified presence, thought of the closeness he was inviting me to express, and said “I can’t! But I’ll try in future!” I did manage, at a reunion once I was also teaching at the college level. This progress through the stages of a relationship cannot be marked anymore… And I think that’s a loss, because the progress itself doesn’t seem to have any meaning, or possibly even to exist…

      • SusanP

        I lived in Portugal for eleven years and discovered that certain formalities actually foster genuine intimacy. I still treasure a number of friendships with Portuguese people. It was a life changing experience. I would move back immediately if I could.

  • RAB

    SusanP, I’ve read some of your Portugal posts, I believe. Yes, I think the formality can foster genuine intimacy. I’ve been calling my students Mr. and Ms. Surname for many years, and some of them take a positive delight in it….and refer to one another that way…doing that seems to make calling ME “Ms.” less forbidding without undermining the respect. We never should have dropped “thee” and “thou,” which permitted “you” to be formal! Without those intimate pronouns in our general language, we’ve unintentionally taught a lot of kids-who-pray to think of “thou” as a FORMAL pronoun (What One Calls The Lord), rather than understanding that it implies an intimacy with God….

  • RAB

    KokkieH dear– I prefer “reveres” too. But usually “reverences” is a verb that applies to a specific action, not just a feeling, and so is needed in some circumstances. NEITHER, of course, applies to how our Phillis feels about Cain!

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Sadly many kids don’t recognize a formal situation when it appears. Difficult when they don’t grow up with adults that make/enforce distinctions. Graduation ceremonies held in basketball gyms instead of auditoriums where whistles, horns, and “shout-outs” would be discouraged. Life has become much too informal and the kids are losing a great deal.
    Not calling people by first names when you don’t know them or are writing about them is totally lost on most students now. Facebook “friends” may be part to blame?
    Delighted to see Wheatley mentioned. One of our oldest most elegant high schools was named that. I think it was the first black high school in Houston. It became a magnet school and there’s a fight to rename it something more modern. (That’s so wrong)

    • RAB

      And they never refer to their female parent as “My mother”: It’s ALWAYS “my Mom.” Hence, I guess, “Hamlet’s mom.” Hey, we’re all pals here, right? Even the parents of my closest friends kept their honorifics, although sometimes they changed from “Mrs. Clark” to “Joyce’s Mother” (“Joyce’s mother, can Joyce come out and play?”)
      I remember our more formal time. Jeans were NOT appropriate for all occasions. Maybe dressing up for various things was sometimes a bit silly; still, you can’t deny the pleasure of going somewhere and knowing your attire is perfectly appropriate. Now I never know what to wear because of course it would be okay to wear anything.
      I think there’s a real place for formality, or maybe it’s better to say “a little distance,” in daily life. Makes you pay attention to the quality and types of your relationships.
      How great to have a school named for Wheatley! And how sad that the Powers want to modernize it. At a university where I used to teach they named the theater building “The Pepsico Theater.” Modern AND mercenary. God.

  • yearstricken

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. I have to imagine that if the student wrote a paper about Shakespeare, he or she would refer to him as William, or perhaps Bill, or more likely Billy. 🙂

  • “Most, if not all, people can relate to Don during this troubling moment.” | You Knew What I Meant

    […] Do you have a moment? Would you like to read a little about a famous composer named Bay? […]

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