Way back in 1970, when I finally received my degree, I was astonished at the language, the words used to announce to all and sundry my entry into the select world of the degreed. The language was arcane and I felt that it was somewhat bizarre. Perhaps I was expecting a simple, straightforward, “Be it known that on this day …(name) was admitted to the degree … ” But no! I opened the dark blue, vinyl folder in which my degree was presented and read the following:
“To all to whom these presents shall come, Greeting: Be it known that (insert full name), having achieved the requirements set forth by…, etc., etc.”
“To all to whom these presents shall come”?
I had to stop for a minute, or if not a minute, a pretty gosh-darned long time to figure out what exactly was being said. I mean, I get the “To all to whom…” part. That’s academecia-speak, or officialese, meaning, “Here is,” or “Take note,” or “Howdy.” But WTF are “these presents”?
At first, I thought that someone had made a mistake and meant to say “…this presence,” namely, me. But then, I figured that thousands of such degrees, all being the same except for the name, would have been distributed. Someone surely must have proofread the document and approved its wording. The grantors must have known what the degree said. The wording must have been intended to be exactly the way it was. “To all to whom these presents shall come…”
Then I thought, “Okay! Let’s party! I’m getting presents! I thought I just got a crumby piece of paper and a handshake, but I’m getting ‘presents’ too! The presents must be on their way to me separately.” Then I gave my head a shake, cleared the humourous asides from my brain and tried to figure out what exactly “these presents” were.
Perhaps “these presents” referred to the gifts to me contained within my education. But no, that couldn’t be it either. This degree was not an announcement directed to me, it was an announcement to others, about me. I was, I am, “these presents.” Wow! The singular me had been transformed into a plural, referred to as “these presents”, not unlike the royal “we,” as in, “We are not amused!” or no doubt the oft spoken, “We would enjoy some nooky.” Not only was I more than myself, I was also all wrapped up in pretty paper and tied with curly ribbons and probably had a big gold bow bestowed upon my head too! I was “these presents”! I am a bundle of gifts for anyone fortunate enough to meet me! Holy Hallelujah, here comes Jake! Or should we call him “Jakes,” now that he’s plural and all. “These presents,” indeed!
The strange wording was not all that was strange about my degree. It turns out that the state of Connecticut, represented by the trustees of the university, also considers the field of Education to be a ‘Science’ rather than an ‘Art.’ It is an admittedly debatable point, but since I detest debates, (especially pointless ones), I won’t go into it further. Let the state and trustees have it the way they will. Let them be right. But it does present certain challenges for me whenever I am called upon to explain how it is that I have achieved a Bachelor of Science degree in Art. (Exactly one time since 1970.)
I have more than one friend who is highly amused by unusual terms for collective descriptions. I admit that such words can have their own esoteric amusement for English speakers, but really! Do we really need to say, “A parliament of owls”? For one thing, owls aren’t especially social and do not tend to hang around in parliaments, (except perhaps on greeting cards) nor do they gather in flocks for that matter. If fish swim in a “school,” fine. Let them swim in a school, but then let anything that swims together, swim in a “school.” No ‘pods’ of whales. Let them school too.
Let all hooved animals be a herd, even sheep, so that flying animals can ‘flock’ themselves, even owls, if they ever flock. Though, truth be told, I’ve never seen a flocking owl. A “murder” of crows? Are you kidding? Let’s put this kind of language into our entertaining, but essentially useless, language past, along with words like ‘prithee,’ which is an ancient form of saying ‘please,’ based on “I pray of you.” Yes, the word exists. So what? It’s useless and confusing, to be used only by academics who wish to entertain other academics by showing that they know a lot of useless words. (Me, for instance.)
“To all to whom these presents shall come…,” “these presents” offer the following advice. Try to ignore the fancy wrappings of “these presents.” Overlook the curled ribbons trailing in “their” wake. Try to contain your mirth as the silly bow perched upon “their” head gets tangled in the chandelier. Leave all “their” wrappings and decorations in place. “They” reserve the right to unwrap “them” for “their” girlfriend. Just try to greet “them” with a straight face and pretend that “they” are just like any other normal group of people occupying one body. “They” will appreciate your forbearance and “they” will talk to you as if you too were ‘normal.’ Deal?