Allan Metcalf: “He thought of himself as a kind of popularizer of language to the general public”

From an obit on The State Journal-Register by Steven Spearie headlined “World-class linguist, journalist was a popularizer of language to the general public”:

Allan Metcalf may have been a renowned scholar, but he had such a fascination with and enthusiasm for the English language that he wanted to share it with everybody, said his colleague Robert Seufert.

“He thought of himself as a kind of popularizer of language to the general public,” said Seufert, who spent over 30 years with Metcalf as an English faculty member at MacMurray College in Jacksonville.

Metcalf originated the American Dialect Society’s “Word of the Year” event that gained national attention and wrote eight books about the English language….

Metcalf’s tenure at MacMurray, a liberal arts college which closed in 2020, spanned 46 years. He served as chair of the English and journalism programs and was the college’s registrar and assistant vice president of academic affairs in the early 2000s before he returned to teaching….

Among Metcalf’s journalism students were Wall Street Journal Sunday and MarketWatch business columnist and reporter Al Lewis and Time magazine reporter and author Nina Burleigh.

Metcalf modeled “Word of the Year” after Time’s “Person of the Year” in 1990. Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary and created their lists later, imitations Metcalf didn’t seem to mind.

“People who enjoy words enjoy our choosing the words,” Metcalf told The State Journal-Register in 2013.

Over the years, Metcalf was interviewed by Guy Raz for “CBS Sunday Morning” and the New York Times about the word choices.

Two of Metcalf’s most popular books centered around a single word.

In “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word” (Oxford University Press), Metcalf traced the origin of the ubiquitous word back to the 1830s when it first used as an abbreviation for “oll korrect” (“all correct”) in a newspaper article but gained steam in Martin van Buren’s presidential campaign. The eighth president was known as “Old Kinderhook.”

“The Life of Guy” (Oxford University Press) was “partly language and partly history,” Seufert said.

“Originally the term ‘guy’ was derived from Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up British Parliament in 1605,” Seufert said. “So, in England, the term ‘guy’ evolved to mean some ‘ne’er do well,’ someone you can’t quite trust. It was a pejorative term. Then, somehow, it got moved into the sphere of referring to any man, ‘a guy.’

“It wound up referring to a male if it was singular and either men or women if it was plural and that evolution just fascinated Allan.”

Metcalf, Seufert added, was a wry, “self-effacing man. There was a certain air of imperturbability to Allan and also impenetrability. You never quite knew what was going on in his mind. He was sort of a reserved gentleman in his own way, but with a very quirky sense of humor. That would come through every now and again and it was charming.”

Seufert recalled in 1981 when he was interviewed for the MacMurray faculty position, he found his chair facing a full-length mirror.

“I told myself, ‘Don’t look at yourself in the mirror. You need to be focused on your interviewers,’ so I did,” he said. “Several months after I got hired, (English professor) Dick (McGuire) took me aside and confided that they had arranged that purposefully to see how their interviewees would react. Allan possibly could have engineered that.”

In a statement put out Friday, the ADS noted that “as a public face of the field of linguistics, (Metcalf) was professional, well-spoken, and expert.”


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