Harvard announces Lewontin’s death

July 6, 2021 • 10:00 am

Here’s the announcement sent to all on the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences email list (my own memorial for Dick is here).

It’s so like Harvard! What on Earth is “the fourth instant”, though? (I’m too lazy to look it up.)

And he was 92, so it is technically correct to say that he was in his 93rd year. “Your obedient servant”?   I suppose this is the boilerplate announcement for a Harvard faculty death.

29 thoughts on “Harvard announces Lewontin’s death

  1. >>>What on Earth is “the fourth instant”, though.

    It’s a very old-fashioned way of saying “the 4th of the current month”. I was going to call it an old-fashioned *business-letter* style, but evidently it can serve for formal occasions as well.

      1. Speaking of ancient phrasing, that web page had me look up just what precisely was to be understood by “… the fond couple repaired to the hymeneal altar, and were made happy”, from the end of an 1807 newspaper story titled “In haste to get married”.

    1. Yes. Also, instant here is not a noun but a postpositive adjective. An example analogous in construction and register, and slightly less obscure, would be “on Monday next”.

  2. Apparently it means on the fourth day of the current month, i.e., July 4.

    A lovely tribute yesterday, btw.

    1. You see it a lot in old death notices, obits, newspaper accounts, etc. Often abbreviated as “inst.”

      1. Also in a lot of legalese.
        Lorem ipsum type boilerplate, as His Ceilingcatness suspects.

        That … passage has a weird history to it. Talk about contingency.

    1. They must have had a helluva postman.

      Totally apocryphal postman story : a pompous git retires from the military to a minuscule village three days beyond the death of the last camel. On his first day he’s standing at his front gate, showing off to the neighbours, feathers puffed up like a capercallie on the lek. The postman pedals up. “Here’s your mail, Sir”.
      General Git fluffs up his feathers and harrumphs “What! What! I’ll have you remember, Sirrah, that I retain my rank in retirement and I’d have you address me as ‘General’ in future!”
      Postman Pat sucks his teeth for a few seconds, then replies “Well in that case, you can just call me Brigadier.”
      [Exits stage right to flatulent deflating noises from the Git.]

  3. All the old-fashioned language is very familiar to me from reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novel series (set in the early 1800s).

    Seems like a boilerplate form. Quite well done.

  4. Reminds me of the legal template verbiage associated with a British petition, which invariably concluded—and which apparently is still used by the tradition-minded:

    ‘And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray’.

    It also sometimes showed up in American petitions, even in postcolonial times. Lovely, in a very strange way. Something grand and stately about that style, and I guess that’s the point that Harvard is trying to make sure you get in using that kind of register in their announcements: at Harvard, everything is elevated, Sunshine.

  5. Even the Phantom of the Opera signed his letters with the formal “Your obedient servant…” at least in the musical) which couldn’t have been less true! Then again, he was a fictional (and insane) character, and the story was set in the 1880s. Harvard has no such excuse. Small wonder people find them so irritating, so often. Or, perhaps, I’m the only one.

    It would be much better if it were signed, “Yours etc., Claudine Gay, in a white wine sauce with shallots, mushrooms and garlic.” But I guess it would be disrespectful to Professor Lewontin (I don’t know if he was a Monty Python fan), so maybe it’s best not done that way.

  6. Wow, pretentious much, Harvard? I should think that a Marxist like Lewontin would find it ironic that the university’s announcement of his death comes off as though issued by some royal court’s palace crier.

  7. The quaint boilerplate wording makes him part of a long tradition of bygone Harvard luminaries whose death was announced the same way. Reading the reactions here, I was reminded of John McWhorters “Doing our own thing”, where her describes (and laments) the loss of formal and poetic registers of the English language.

    1. I’m down for forestalling the loss of the poetic registers of the English language. Heck, when the opportunity arises, I do what I can to resuscitate catchy words and phrases such as “plight one’s troth” or “lief” or “eftsoons” from the archaic refuse heap.

      But I don’t see that the Harvard announcement at issue — from its turgid pleonasm “year of his age” to the silly “Your obedient servant” — fits this bill. If this is the sort of empty “tradition” Harvard exalts, it might as well go back to being an all-boys college and reinstituting a quota system for Catholics and Jews. Was time when those were revered Harvard traditions, too.

        1. I caged it from the last line of the third stanza of S.T. Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Can’t get a much nobler provenance than that, 🙂

            1. These days I more often hear about the poet’s quasi-namesake, late 19th Century Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor .

  8. We Brits of a certain age came across and used ‘inst’ and ‘ult’ until relatively recently. It was standard businesese beloved by bank managers and solicitors as in “Thank you for your letter of 4th inst'”. And woe betide you if you did not know the difference between ‘inst’ and ‘ult’ for ‘O’ level Englsh language.

  9. In relation to pretentious bygone business jargon, the bank letter would go, “We are in receipt of your favour of the fourth inst. …… .”

    Until quite recently business correspondence in India retained a formality that even the English had forsaken. Inst., prox., and ult. were still common parlance.

    Language in a coffin.

  10. Dear Ceiling Cat,

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope you take extra good care of yourself. And may your mentor’s memory be a blessing.


  11. I’ve just noticed that no one has addressed the 93rd year thing. It is correct. It’s like being in the 21st century even though it’s 2021. I’m very sorry for this loss from your life Jerry,

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