Only the Butler Knows for Sure
Do you think you sound like a butler whenever you use the pronoun ‘whom’? The noted American humorist and New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin does, or at least did, according to a recent “Cryptoquote.” (For those who don’t know what a Cryptoquote is, it’s a newspaper puzzle in which one letter stands for another and which, when solved, yields a short and occasionally pithy quotation).
The exact words of Trillin’s quotation were: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.” Unlike any other Cryptoquote I’ve ever read, this one gave me considerable pause. What stopped me was the idea of a New Yorker writer—any New Yorker writer—seeming, even implicitly, to endorse bad grammar. Could this actually be happening in the magazine where E.B. White, he of the infamous Strunk & White style manual as well as Charlotte’s Web, had strutted his stuff for many years? Here was something definitely worth further exploration!
As I began my search for the origins of the quotation, I discovered that it has been cited many times recently. No fewer than a dozen Google references came up on my initial Google search—most from within the past month or two. But interestingly enough, most predated the newspaper Cryptoquote, meaning that it wasn’t just the appearance of the Cryptoquote that vaulted the quotation back into celebrity status. What, I wondered, what might have occasioned the quotation’s recent resurgence in popularity? Hopefully this wasn’t a sign that its author, whose work I’ve long enjoyed, is failing, or, God help us, already deceased. But why else would we be seeing the quotation so often? I hadn’t noticed that we were being overrun by wheelbarrowloads of ‘whoms.’ Had you? Here where I live in Nova Scotia, I’m lucky if I hear the pronoun twice in a week, except from my own lips.
Happily, a quick pass through Trillin’s Wikipedia biography revealed that, for the moment at least, he is still alive if not necessarily kicking. Thank heaven for small mercies. The last thing we need right now, after a month in which we’ve lost George Michael and Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (to name but a few), is to lose another celebrity.
Eventually I found the source of the quotation. Interestingly, it was from The Nation, not The New Yorker. (Another pass through Wikipedia revealed that Trillin has been the former magazine’s most prolific contributor in recent years). We don’t, therefore, get quite the same cognitive dissonance we might have had the thing appeared in White’s old magazine. Even so, The Nation has never been a magazine for lowbrows or for intellectual lightweights. While politically left, it’s culturally nearly as traditional as The New Yorker. Its average reader almost certainly has at least as many degrees as the average New Yorker reader.
Of more interest than the place of publication was the date. The quotation, it transpired, first appeared in the June 5, 1985 issue of The Nation—just about halfway through the Reagan years. Certainly the dumbing-down of society, of which we’ve all been made so painfully aware of late, had already begun. I myself had satirized the emerging trend in a 1982 essay, “In Pursuit of the Higher Mediocrity.” At the same time, the universal darkness forecast by Alexander Pope at the close of his Dunciad had not yet completely descended on us. Not by a long shot. The Kingston Whig-Standard, then still a proud independent daily to which I contributed throughout most of the 1980s, offered plenty of scope for the free play of the mind and a full spectrum of political opinion, from Libertarian through Green, in its editorial pages and particularly in its Saturday magazine. Evidence of education, wit, and humour was still permissible in politics, both in the U.S. and in Canada. While danger signs had begun to emerge, genuine debate within the intellectual community was still perfectly possible. It is in this context, I think, that Trillin’s remark should be viewed. I see it as a throwing-down of the gauntlet to his fellow highbrows and high middlebrows, inviting them to lighten up a bit. It is not, as it might be construed in today’s far more black-and-white intellectual universe, an invitation to unfettered grammatical license. Which begs the intriguing question of why the quotation should have been revisited at this particular point in our cultural history. Nostalgia for a world that no longer exists? A somewhat belated attempt to demonstrate a populist folksiness on the part even of highbrow intellectuals writing for highbrow publications? The more I think about it, the more perplexed I become.
For the record, despite being a card-carrying high middlebrow, I’m not terribly bothered by people who use ‘who’ when technically they should be using ‘whom.’ In the larger scheme of things, such a minor solecism—perhaps the equivalent of not wearing a tie to a funeral—doesn’t really matter much at all. At most, it rates about a .7 on the grammatical Richter scale. The meaning remains the same whichever form of the pronoun one uses. I’m far more bothered by people who talk about something’s being “pretty unique.” And as for folks who blithely drop ‘disinterested’ into the slot meant for ‘uninterested’ or ‘bored’—well, let’s just not go there. My blood pressure is high enough already, since the installation of the Great Impostor in Washington.
All of this said, I shall continue using ‘whom’ as the objective case of this particular pronoun. While it’s true that I’m also the sort of man who still wears ties to funerals, my continuing use of the objective form goes well beyond mere obeisance to tradition. I have found ‘whom’ a very useful word indeed on numerous occasions—and always without feeling like a butler.
In my experience, ‘whom’ is particularly useful in dealing with telephone solicitors—at least a medium-sized nuisance for most of us. After the initial ‘Hello’ or at the first hint of an awkward silence, whichever comes first, I intone, in my best and most deliberate radio voice, the following. “To whom do you wish to speak?” For the timid, this succession of thudding monosyllables will often suffice. The would-be solicitor abandons the attempt and vanishes, as I imagine it, back into his or her private little rabbit warren. Oftener than you might think, the mere confident assertion of rhetorical distance is enough to rid me of the pest, at least for the time being. And even those who persist are at a significant disadvantage, both because of the rhetorical distance I have asserted and because I have taken the initiative in the encounter. They are easy prey for my next line: a Colonel Blimp-like demand that the caller “State your business and do it quickly!” The apparently contradictory need to be precise and to be quick reduces the vast majority of the survivors to babbling incoherence, whereupon I tell them tenderly, “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it seems the height of arrogance to expect anyone else to know. Goodbye!”
The above is just one example of how using ‘whom’ can benefit one’s peace of mind. I’m sure that many of my readers will have their own, similar examples to offer.
Bottom line: ‘Whom’ doesn’t, at least in my view, make me sound like a butler. I’ve never yet worn anyone’s livery and am not about to start now, as a septuagenarian, for the sake of an humble pronoun. What it does do is establish me as a person who knows what a butler is. Beyond that, it serves as a welcome corrective to the faux familiarity of our times. Though there may be times when I choose, deliberately, not to use it, it will remain, as it has been for some 60 years, a useful tool in my linguistic kit.
CONTEST: Embedded somewhere within this blog is a reference to a popular song that is at least 40 years old. I’ll give 30 minutes of editorial advice gratis to the first three readers to identify the song and the singer. Hint: the reference appears in the third-to-last paragraph of the blog. Closing date: whenever I post my next blog.
 This essay, first published in the Whig-Standard Magazine, has been reprinted in my Social Studies: Collected Essays, 1974-2013 (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2014).