Naming, in perpetuity

From the NYT on the 28th, a piece by Sam Roberts, “With Naming Rights, ‘Perpetuity’ Doesn’t Always Mean Forever”, with some serious linguistics in it:

After Philippe de Montebello agreed at breakfast two decades ago to name the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Roman Sculpture Court, in perpetuity, for the philanthropists and antiquities collectors Leon Levy and his wife, Shelby White, Mr. Levy predictably, but politely, posed an impertinent question.

“Aware that sometime in the future, Philippe’s successor would probably be making the same promise to some donor not yet born,” Mr. Levy later recalled, “I asked him, How long is ‘in perpetuity’?”

“For you, 50 years,” Mr. de Montebello, the museum director, replied.

They went on to further negotiate the time span.

How to understand “in perpetuity” in this context?

Eventually there will be a bonus, on the names of buildings housing linguistics at Ohio State and Stanford. But first, Chomsky in rigidly literalist mode, while also challenging the power structure:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines perpetuity as “for all time,” or forever.

“The wording is quite clear,” said Noam Chomsky, the iconoclastic linguist and emeritus Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, adding, though: “Those with power and authority in the public and private sectors violate laws all the time.”

Two challenges to Chomsky’s position: it ignores the vagueness of language in use; and it doesn’t take into account the nature of the agreement in the de Montebello case as a kind of contract in law, not an everyday promise.

Point 1: almost all expressions are surrounded, in ordinary (not technical) use, by a penumbra of vagueness. For all time and forever, for example, are customarily used to allow for some wiggle room, some looseness as to the totality of the time span: in effect, ‘almost always’.

And for promises, this looseness allows for non-fulfillment of the promise in certain circumstances. Suppose I promise to meet you at 4th and Vine at 4 p.m. today, but shortly before that time, because of a terrible car crash, my approach to the neighborhood goes up in flames. I won’t be able to honor my promise, but we wouldn’t say I’ve reneged on the promise; circumstances intervened.

Point 2: the de Montebello case (and a related one turning on the naming rights to a performance space in Lincoln Center, currently named Avery Fisher Hall) involves a kind of contractual agreement — this fact is highlighted by the legalistic (rather than ordinary) language used (“in perpetuity”) — though de facto contracts don’t require such language. The crucial point is that contracts can be renegotiated, and often are.

This second point is made clearly by other authorities that Sam Roberts quotes in the NYT piece:

Mark Liberman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, blames the ambiguity on legalities rather than linguistics — the nullification of a contract rather than the redefinition of a word. He cited the art collection of the Barnes Foundation, which a judge ruled in 2004 could move from an isolated site to Philadelphia, despite the wishes of its benefactor, who died in 1951.

“If someone serving a ‘life sentence’ is pardoned or has their conviction overturned, this doesn’t change the meaning of ‘life sentence,’ ” Mr. Liberman said. “It just cancels the applicability of that term to the individual in question.”

Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and president of the American Dialect Society, agreed that “yes, perpetuity means forever, but what happened is not that the word ‘perpetuity’ was redefined, but that the notion of ‘forever’ was redefined. And in this case, since apparently everyone involved was happy with the outcome — Lincoln Center for being able to change the name, and the family of Avery Fisher for receiving a payoff — I’m not sure who has cause to complain.”

“This is just the way things work,” he said. “When you get married, it’s typical to make various promises ‘till death us do part,’ and when these promises are broken, it doesn’t mean that death has been redefined.”

Choosing a name for a building or space. Sometimes donors get to attach their own names, or a name they choose (as in the cases above), sometimes institutions choose names to honor people associated with the institutions in one way or another. Here’s a varied collection of examples from university buildings (at Ohio State and Stanford) associated with linguistics departments.

Ohio State: University Hall. From the Columbus Dispatch in 2012, this story, “Columbus Mileposts: Sept. 17, 1873 : Ohio State University opens with one building, ‘handful’ of students”:

That single building, University Hall, housed not only the lecture halls but also the faculty apartments and student lodging. It was closed in 1968 and razed in 1971. A replica was erected in 1976 and remains open today.

The name was obvious: the building was the university for some time.

Linguistics (founded as a department in 1965) was housed in University Hall for some time, and played a role in its downfall. The department’s anechoic chamber was on the top floor of the by-then rickety building, and its enormous weight caused the floor to sink. (Chuck Fillmore dropped some change on the floor one day, and was startled to see it all roll, fast, towards the chamber. The floor was shored up on the storey below, but then that floor too began to sink. And so on down the building, so that eventually the whole wing was condemned, and Linguistics got moved to a brand-new building (with the anechoic chamber safely on the ground floor!).

Ohio State: The Dieter Cunz Hall of Languages. A more interesting naming history. From Wikipedia:

Dieter Cunz (August 4, 1910 – February 17, 1969), German-born American historian, writer, educator, and occasional journalist. He is also said to have co‑authored several detective novels or Kriminalromane in collaboration with Oskar Seidlin and Richard Plant (1910–1998) under the collective pen‑name of Stefan Brockhoff.

… He was a beloved professor of German at the University of Maryland, and from 1956 at the Ohio State University, which now has a building named after him (Dieter Cunz Hall of Languages, at 1841 Millikin Road in Columbus, Ohio) [in 1969].

Nice to have academic buildings named for scholars and teachers.

Ohio State: Oxley Hall. Linguistics next moved to Oxley Hall (1712 Neil Ave.), which also houses the Office of International Affairs. An even more interesting history, from the OSU Library archives:

It may be hard to believe, but for many years in OSU’s early history, no female students lived on campus. Girls were expected to take rooms with local families or to live in boarding houses. Eventually, however, OSU women did get a dorm of their own: Oxley Hall.

The building was designed by a woman, who was an OSU alumna, to boot. Florence Kenyon Hayden was a former OSU student who had studied with then-University Architect Joseph Bradford. Her work was so good that Bradford suggested her to the Board of Trustees as the architect for the women’s dorm.

She got the job, although the trustees assigned her a male partner — Wilbur T. Mills — to complete the project. In a 1970 Columbus Dispatch interview, she said that she became fed up with Mills, locked him out of the office, and submitted her final plans for approval within the month. So apparently what we see today is Kenyon Hayden’s vision, although both she and Mills are listed as the official architectural team. After marrying a physician, she began designing medical facilities, for which she later gained some national attention.

Construction began on the building in 1907; it was built in the English Renaissance style with a Spanish tile roof, brick exterior and limestone trim…

Residents moved into the building in September 1908 and took a vote on what to name their new home. The Board of Trustees accepted their recommendation, and on November 20, 1908, officially named the building for President William Oxley Thompson’s mother (her maiden name, which is where he got his middle name).

There are now plans afoot to move Linguistics to yet another building.

Stanford: Margaret Jacks Hall. When I first came to Stanford, Linguistics was housed in Building 100, on the inner quad. Then, as the renovation of the main quad buildings proceeded, it was moved to the outer quad, in Building 460 (Margaret Jacks Hall), which also houses English. On Margaret Jacks:

Margaret Jacks (1875-1962) attended Radcliffe College to prepare for a career in teaching. But instead, her family persuaded her to manage their extensive land holdings on the Monterey Peninsula and in Salinas Valley. She was very successful as an entrepreneur on the Jacks estates. When Margaret Jacks died, she willed Stanford, through the Wells Fargo Trust, more than $6 million. At the time, it was the largest gift to the school since the original Stanford family grant. Some of the bequest was used to rebuild the old physiology building, now Margaret Jacks Hall, and some of the funds endowed four more Jacks chairs in the Graduate School of Education.

And on her father:

David Jack (18 April 1822 – 11 January 1909), also known as David Jacks, was a powerful Californian landowner, developer, and businessman. Born in Scotland, he emigrated to California during the 1849 Gold Rush, and soon acquired several thousand acres in and around Monterey, shaping the history of Monterey County in the first decades of American possession. He is also credited as being the first to market and popularize Monterey Jack cheese.

… David Jack married Maria Soledad de Romie on 20 April 1861 and produced nine children, with only seven surviving childhood. His last surviving heir, Margaret Jack, died in 1962, and the remainder of his estate passed to various colleges and universities in California.

Who knew it was going to end up with Monterey Jack cheese?

Stanford: Jordan Hall. Next door to Margaret Jacks Hall is the home of Psychology, Jordan Hall (Building 420), where my current Stanford office is located. On David Starr Jordan, in a nutshell, from Wikipedia:

David Starr Jordan (January 19, 1851 – September 19, 1931) was a leading ichthyologist, educator, eugenicist, and peace activist. He was president of Indiana University and was the founding president of Stanford University.

A fascinating nutshell.

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