PostScripps: Editing for Relevance

When I tell people what I do for a living, I sometimes become flypaper for linguistic

pet peeves. “Oh, you’re an academic editor,” I’ll hear. “It’s sad how people misuse the word literally when what they should say is figuratively. What is this world coming to?” Tut-tut.

I appreciate the public’s interest in language; I’m a student of it myself. Yet if Scripps’ Core Curriculum taught me anything, it’s that no word means just one thing. This is a lesson I find to be evergreen. As a manuscript editor, I have come to consider it my professional obligation to defuse “language panic,” which is what happens when preferences, customs, and status signifiers masquerade as fixed rules and definitions.

Over the past year, events have led the entire Scripps community, myself included, to revisit the designation “women’s college.” Privately with friends and also in semipublic forums, I have wondered aloud about what the genitive apostrophe + s, in women’s, can mean. Long story short, I see a pretty elastic grammatical relationship between women and college. Personally, I like to think of Scripps as a “women-centric” college. But I don’t think that’s the only valid interpretation.

More important than the apostrophe + s may be women. How does that word operate in the phrase “women’s college”? Is it a gatekeeper determining who’s in and who’s out? Is it subject matter—what we all come together to discuss, shape, and constitute? Perhaps the women in “women’s college” is a placeholder, something hypothetical, whose mere presence frees us from the tedium of gender maintenance and allows us to spend our energy elsewhere.

The reality is that our most beloved words and phrases go through somewhat predictable social cycles. After enjoying favor for a time, they become laden with so many meanings that they threaten to become meaning-less. (Such is the case with literally.) This sparks a crisis—some might abandon a term entirely, others might cleave to an etymologically reductive definition and police every perceived misuse. Somewhere between these two polar reactions is a more productive form of reexamination, an approach that might yield clarity and even reinvigorate the term in question.

As we contemplate what keeps Scripps relevant to us and to society, I think we will find that the endurance of our women’s college identity depends on our embrace of flexible and responsive language.

And so: long live Scripps, the women’s college!

BY KATIE VAN HEEST ’02

 

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