Peeping Toms

Scott McLemee recounts a "contemporary legend" (what used to be called an "urban legend") of academia -- a doctoral defense that turns out to be about nothing at all. And Scott asks if anyone can provide names or dates to prove this defense ever happened.

book/daddy cannot. But I can provide another contemporary legend from academia, a favorite of mine, and the question remains the same: Anyone know anything to corroborate this?

A 17th century English lit doctoral candidate has completed her dissertation on Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist. Early on in her studies (yes, the gender makes this seem sexist, but I'm just reporting the anecdote as I heard it), she moved away from the university because of something -- oh, let's say she had to live with her parents. So she completed her work by mail. This was not that uncommon 25 years ago, and probably even less so today with the internet.

At any rate, it's the day of her defense, she returns to the department and faces a jury of professors -- who quickly realize that in all this time, no one has explained that Pepys' name is pronounced "Peeps." But the professors are embarrassed as well, to have one of their Ph.D. candidates get this far and never to have spoken to one of them directly. So our plucky candidate has the unnerving experience of hearing her mentors nervously coo at her for several hours.

Everytime she says "Peppis," one of them would softly go ... "Peeps."

Now before we dismiss this as an obvious joke, and an implausible one at that, book/daddy must add this coda, which I promise is true: I related the above anecdote to a brand new English lit prof in Austin in the early '80s, and he expressed wonder. He hadn't realized that Pepys was pronounced like that.

No big deal, I said, lots of people don't. And besides, Pepys isn't really in your field (which happened to be 18th-century literature). But then a perfect example hit me: It's like all those other names of British writers with funny pronuncations, I said. You know, like William Cowper, right? The 18th-century poet whose name is pronounced Cooper.

Surprised silence. Ah, no, actually, he didn't know that, either.

THE HOWLING: Scott posted this over at Crooked Timber, and it has triggered a small tsunami of responses.

July 16, 2007 9:04 AM | | Comments (6)



Until I entered graduate school in history, I had assumed that the formidable philosopher/historian/black nationalist W.E.B. Du Bois pronounced his last name Doo-Bwah.

During my master's program in history at the University of California at Riverside, I took a class taught by Sterling Stuckey, author of "Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America." Dr. Stuckey actually knew Du Bois and told me that he pronounced his surname Dah-Boyz. This is probably because Du Bois grew up in Massachusetts rather than in New Orleans or the more Creole quarters of East Texas.

Anyway, that was a surprise and I find most historians use the Doo-Bwah pronunciation when referring to Du Bois and his work.

Yes. Yes, indeed, book/daddy knew that. Of course he did.

Just as he knew that your last name is pronounced ... um, Gatorade?

By the way, the maiden name of book/daddy's sainted mother happened to be Podgursky, which he has decided to have changed to iPod-gursky.

For more name games, you should check out the Crooked Timbers postings, if you haven't already.

Similar example to Cowper: surname of Abraham Cowley, also 17th c. poet, is pronounced "Cooley."

But you knew that.

The legend reminds me a bit of Charles Chesnutt's short story, "Baxter's Procrustes," for it's situation.

Excellent point. I wondered whether someone might bring up the issue of British vs. American pronunciations or the fact that some have argued that Pepys isn't pronounced "Peeps" after all.

But the dismaying revelation of the anecdote stilll stands -- my young lit prof acquaintance didn't know there was any debate about the name at all, whether it was pronounced Cooper, Copper or Chingachcgook, the Mohican Indian created, of course, by ... James Fenimore Cowper.

Ah, yes, but how is 'Cooper' pronounced? My ex's father was a 'Cooper.' This was pronounced like the 'u' in 'pushed,' only with a stronger 'u' and with, as it were, an accent earlier on the 'Coop' syllable. It really is more like 'Cowper' in the way people might 'naturally' mispronounce it in the accent or strength of the vowel than like the German 'u' as in 'gut' (German 'good') which is how 'Cooper' is usually pronounced.


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