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The prodigal and the peever

We take our text today from the parable of the prodigal son, and what it can teach us about the psychology of the peever. We are not much interested in the prodigal himself, an all-too-familiar and not particularly interesting type. No, we are going to look at the older brother and his reaction to the prodigal’s welcome home.

We can understand the elder brother. He stayed home and worked the family farm. He did the chores every day, 365 days a year, and endured the old man’s endless quirks. He was the good boy, the dutiful son, the one who stayed home and followed all the rules and did everything he was supposed to do. Now comes the younger brother, the spendthrift, the wastrel, the debauchee, the failure, and he gets a banquet and the old man’s teary embrace. It’s just not fair.

I venture to speculate that the typical language peever was, like me, a teacher’s pet. He read books all the way through for book reports, turned in homework on time and in the proper format, answered questions and participated in class discussion, followed the rules, and obeyed duly constituted authority, expecting to be rewarded.

He was a good boy, only to discover that the authorities would betray his trust and reward wastrels. Linguists (professors! people at the pinnacle of academic prestige!) would tell him that the schoolroom grammar he learned and parroted was riddled with superstition. Lexicographers would not only allow rubbish like irregardless into the sacred precincts of the dictionary, but would defend the decision. He would be told that any subliterate has the same right to the language that he does. Worse, he would be ridiculed, his hard-won literacy disparaged and dismissed as snobbery. It’s just not fair.

(About the snobbery: The teacher’s pet/English major who excuses his air of superiority as he corrects lesser folk because it is based on intellectual values rather than sordid material wealth is misguided. He is still a snob.) 

The teacher’s pet and the English major awaken to the discovery that virtue-as-its-own-reward is a mingy satisfaction. What profiteth it to be a teacher’s pet unless other students can be marked down as inferior? For the peever, there is always Gore Vidal’s observation that it is not enough to succeed, others must fail. My mastery of the mother tongue must be contrasted with your ineptitude.

Then it turns out that the old man loves both his sons, and the teacher likes the other students, too. Then it turns out to be the case that formal written standard schoolroom English isn’t the only valid English. Then it turns out that refusing to use impact as a verb and taking care never to mess up it’s/its or there/their/they’re doesn’t quite elevate you to Olympus.

Then it is time for Ezra Pound’s advice, “Pull down your vanity.” If you were indeed a good and apt student of the language, there is much awaiting your attention: superficial and slipshod writing to be identified and corrected, intellectually dishonest writing to be exposed and denounced.  Plenty of work for the whole family on the old man’s farm. 

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