Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/August 1883/Rank and Title



THERE is a lamentable want of method in the titular nomenclature of our public service. A first-class clerk on the civil list is a novice, receiving twelve hundred dollars a year; he becomes a fourth-class clerk, at eighteen hundred a year, only after three promotions. A lieutenant in the army is far beneath the major, but a lieutenant-general is above the major-general. Nor do the grades of lieutenant and captain in the army by any means correspond in importance with similar titles in the navy. Who can tell which is the higher officer of the navy, the chief-engineer or the engineer-in-chief? Or to whom shall we give precedence, the "chief clerk" of the Senate or the "principal clerk" of that body? The titles of the "door-keepers" of Congress convey but a faint idea of the importance and multiplicity of their duties.

During the last session of Congress an unsuccessful attempt was made to do away with the inferior titles of assistant surgeon and passed-assistant surgeon in the navy, and, in plain English, to call a surgeon a surgeon, as we call a spade a spade. The medical service of the army descends not only to the assistant surgeon, but also to the lower estate of acting assistant surgeon. But the latter official is a surgeon in every sense of the word. He has won the title by years of study and practice. His diploma gives him the right to it, and his professional experience has confirmed him in the possession of it. As such he is qualified to saw a leg off, or treat a fever; and when the Government degrades him with the title of acting assistant surgeon, which might be more properly applied to the boy who temporarily whets the knives and mixes the powders, it robs him of his reputation.

"But he that filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed."

The War Department is especially ungenerous in its designation of the civilians who are engaged upon its engineering work. Perhaps in order to keep this numerous class in the background, as far from the public appreciation as possible, and thus to increase the prominence of the engineer officers, it is ordained that, with one or two exceptions, no civilian shall be known other than as an assistant in some shape or other. Upon the geographical surveys, the topographers have been classified as topographical assistants, and the meteorologists under the cumbersome head of meteorological assistants. Since the topographers, or, more properly, geographers, conducted the triangulation, planned the surveys, and made the maps, it is difficult to see to whom they rendered assistance. Certainly not, in general, to the army officers, whose names appear conspicuously upon the maps as "executive officers and field astronomers." Though a Humboldt, or a Petermann, or a Guyot, should tender his services to the War Department as a maker of maps, he would probably be doomed to go down to posterity as a "topographical assistant." As such the public would picture him, if it thought of him at all, as sharpening the pencils and carrying the note-books of his superior officer! To the scanty recognition of civil co-operation, and to the consequent half-hearted interest and support of the civilians, is largely due the discontinuance of the surveys in question. The prestige of the Engineer Corps, upheld by the good work of the civil engineers, would have carried them through any crisis, if the latter class had seriously cared to continue the partnership longer, and if the scientific world had approved of so unequal a distribution of rewards as prevailed there.

When a man is appointed a civil engineer in the navy there are a few of that profession employed at the several navy-yards throughout the country—he is entered upon the register under that name, he wears the imprint of his title upon his uniform, and, among his friends or in the witness-box, he has no difficulty in explaining his occupation. But in the army, or, rather, under the army, since he is not recognized as a component part of the organization, the position of the civil engineer is an exceedingly irregular one. There are several hundred civil engineers employed by the War Department upon the extensive river and harbor improvements constantly in progress. These are classed indiscriminately as assistant engineers, although they may have practical direction of the works upon which they are engaged. Sometimes their official mail comes to them addressed "U. S. Assistant Engineer," sometimes "Assistant U. S. Engineer," thus revealing a doubt or a carelessness even at headquarters concerning their appellation. As the officers of the army, by whom these things are regulated, are the greatest of sticklers in regard to their own rank, and there is no breach of military etiquette more serious than the mutilation of a title or the omission of a brevet, we would naturally expect from them greater consideration in their intercourse with civilians; and, if a man is a civil engineer by virtue of diploma and experience, he should be allowed the simple justice of remaining such. But, if one of these anomalous beings should presume to sign himself "U. S. Civil Engineer," which his natural and most graphic description, he is guilty of a technical falsehood, as the War Department, by recognizing such a grade as that, and then leaving it practically empty, there being but two United States civil engineers on the rolls, has debarred from its use the many other civil engineers who are equally entitled to that distinction.

There are engineers and engineers—civil, mechanical, sanitary, geographical, hydraulic, steam, locomotive, fire-department, and dozens more. For a man to say that he is an engineer conveys but a vague idea of his business. To say that he is an assistant engineer adds humiliation to vagueness. To continue, that he is an assistant United States engineer, working under the Engineer Corps of the army, would probably place him, in the popular comprehension, as an assistant to one of the soldiers of the engineer battalion. At any rate, it is not a distinction in which the American civil engineer can take great pride. To show its worthlessness for purposes of classification and description, which is the principal use of titles, we have but to say that in the pay-rolls of the Engineer Department, as published in the "United States Official Register," we find "Engineer, $60 per month," and "Assistant Engineer, $250 per month"; the former, we infer, being a steam-engineer, and the latter, it is to be presumed, a civil engineer. The civil engineers of America are not a haughty class, but still they do not wish to pass into official history in such a shape as that,

Words are principally useful for the conveyance of ideas, and when they convey no idea, or, at best, an erroneous one, they fail of their mission. A man's title is in some sense the measure of the respect which the world gives him, and justice to himself and a due regard for the world's convenience demand that it should be expressed in words that will plainly describe his occupation. In private life this is so, and when a man is called an oculist, a photographer, or a grocer, we immediately know his place and importance as a member of society. When a barber dubs himself a "tonsorial artist," and when the Government, with its red tape, assembles lawyer, physician, and statistician under the omnium gatherum title of "clerk," it is an offense against good English language. Since the true worker is always an enthusiast in his profession, and resents being classified under any other head, it is equally an injury to himself. How, for instance, can the lawyer of the Interior Department or the financier of the Treasury go home to his friends and describe himself as a fourth-class clerk without feeling the blush of shame upon his brow?

It was left to the Coast Survey to invent the ingeniously menial designation of "acting sub-assistant," and it is difficult to see how any man, loaded down with the ignominy of such a name, could ever do good work or rise to better things. Whatever may be the duties of any participant in the excellent work of that organization, he can not, in good English, be less than an assistant, and yet only officers of the highest attainable grade are entitled to the latter distinction. Still below the assistants and sub-assistants come the aids, young officers whose inferiority of position is mollified by the possession of a title synonymous in meaning with that of their superiors, and therefore equally respectable in the popular comprehension. Such is the poverty of this nomenclature that it carries with it only the general idea of subordination. Surely it would not be impossible to devise some system of titles which would at the same time convey some hint of the duties and the relative rank of the scientists of that body.