The term “master” has been under fire because it is said to have connotations of the era of slavery.
“The term house master is and will remain a part of the college’s long and proud history,” wrote Michael D. Smith, Harvard University’s dean of arts and sciences, in explaining Wednesday why the proud term was being abolished. Harvard’s houses will henceforth be led by “faculty deans,” a deliciously absurd coinage that I suppose will soon be coming to dormitories at other old colleges. To be fair, Harvard announced late last year that it was searching for alternatives to “master.” Evidently the alumni fought a rearguard action hoping to have the term retained. I imagine that the alumni at Yale University, where I teach, are fighting the same action as they await the university's decision.
The term “master” has been under fire because it is said to have connotations of the era of slavery. One can understand this objection without agreeing that it’s time to throw the word overboard. It seems to me to be eminently sensible to purge from our everyday vocabulary actual terms of derogation of various groups, a point that everyone except my beloved Washington professional football team seems to accept. The same is true for symbols of oppression, which is why most of us cheered when the Confederate flags came down.
It’s something else again to start tossing words overboard because of their potential connotations. “Master” is an enormously useful word, whose history, as Smith concedes, has nothing to do with slavery. Under maritime law, vessels have masters. Chess masters aspire to become grandmasters. And if bond traders collectively are no longer quite the “masters of the universe” they once were, the phrase isn’t about to go away.
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