If this is your first time reading a Fascista post, please read the disclaimers first.
Thanks to everyone who has written to me with requests and suggested topics. I've made a list (sorry, Brillig; no spreadsheet yet) and will address them in the future. Keep 'em coming! I love your feedback.
I'm a writer; Patrick is a lawyer. Today I take on the misusage of two words related to the professions we have chosen: 'author' and 'attorney.' Despite what you probably hear in everyday conversation, neither word can stand alone in describing what someone does for a living.
An author is someone who creates something, as in the following examples (emphasis mine):
"The author of our salvation was made perfect through suffering."
"...it will be necessary to provide affidavits establishing the commission of the crime and the identity of the fugitive as the author of the crime."
"As the author of Moby-Dick, quite possibly the greatest American novel, and slippery protomodern works like 'Bartleby the Scrivener,' 'Benito Cereno' and 'Billy Budd,' Melville is a towering presence."
Notice that in the preceding sentences, the word "author" is always followed by "of [something]." Let's say that I'm at a swanky Manhattan cocktail party, the kind where as a conversation opener, someone invariably asks, "So, what do you do?"
I would normally answer, "I'm a writer," but I could also use the words "novelist," "lyricist," "poet," or "essayist," depending on which part of my body of work I feel like highlighting. I would never say, "I'm an author," full stop/period. Never.
The word 'author' demands a modifying prepositional phrase describing the creation. I might say later in the conversation, "I'm the author of Shannon's Mirror," or "I'm a co-author of the essay collection Silent Notes Taken," or (let's all cross our fingers together) "I'm the author of ZF-360, a fantasy novel being published next year by [reputable publisher]."
This means that the creator of the course title of a class I took my freshman year of college, "Major British Authors Before 1800," employed incorrect usage. Why would an English professor, of all people, fall prey to such folly? I have to assume that s/he thought "Authors" sounded somehow more weighty and important than "Writers." And in fact, Fowler points out that a large portion of usage errors arise from the desire to dress up language; insecurity is often the sorry parent of this desire.
People misuse the word "attorney" for precisely this reason. "Lawyer" has had negative connotations from at least the time of the translation of the King James Bible ("Woe unto you also, ye lawyers!"); these connotations obviously persist today ("A lawyer, a loan shark, and a garbageman are in a bar..."). But here's why "attorney" should not be used as some kind of distancing euphemism.
Patrick went to law school, earned a Juris Doctor degree, and passed the New York State Bar to become a lawyer. But all this didn't make him an attorney.
An attorney is "a person legally appointed by another to act as his or her agent in the transaction of business." This is why when someone grants you a power of attorney (though you may not be a lawyer), you are authorized to act in behalf of that person in specific instances. In this case you would be an attorney-in-fact, as opposed to an attorney-at-law.
If Patrick has no clients, he is not anyone's attorney. Fortunately for us, he does have clients; he is Bill Brohn's attorney, for example. (Trivia: the Attorney General is the main legal adviser to the government.) So, at that same swanky cocktail party, modest, self-deprecating Patrick will declare that he is a plain, ordinary lawyer, not an attorney, and endure the inevitable jokes that ensue.
Can you think of other professions that get dressed up with fancy words to make them sound more important? Other than the two I've addressed here, I can only think of "sanitation engineer." Let me know.
**UPDATED** I am in no way saying that all those who use "author" instead of "writer" or "attorney" instead of 'lawyer' are doing so because they are pretentious. These are common, everyday errors that the unwitting can easily pick up through linguistic "osmosis."