Privatdozent in English

In H. L. Mencken’s piece “The National Letters” (1920), I find the following, as Mencken turns his attention to excoriating American literary critics: “When one comes to the Privat-Dozenten there is less remoteness, but what takes the place of it is almost as saddening. To Sherman and Percy Boynton the one aim of criticism seems to be the enforcement of correctness … .” The term Privatdozent, which is a type of professor, is used by Mencken here to refer to literary critics en masse.

This word choice is interesting. For the German reader, it is simultaneously out of place and a bit puzzling — somewhat like The New Yorker’s recent usage of the term “Anschluss,” which was defined by George Packer as “the German word for [annexation]” [1]. However, it does speak to the influence exerted by Germany’s intelligentsia, particularly prior to the Second World War.

Reading these lines, should the German native perhaps conclude that Privatdozent is an accepted term in the US, and one that can be freely used without translation? The answer is no; the fact that Mencken can’t get the spelling right is a testament to its rarity in English. (In a different essay, he persists in spelling it incorrectly as two words, but without a hyphen, i.e. “Privat Dozent.”) While the term is perhaps best rendered as “adjunct professor” in American English, the common abbreviation for the title — PD, as in “PD Dr. Hans Meier” — in no way sidesteps this translation problem. In English, of course, “PD” is the abbreviation for “pediatrician” (Kinderarzt). Accordingly, in the example just provided, PD should simply be omitted, and not just because it is misleading: in English, one almost never cites multiple titles prior to the name, as per the recommendations of virtually all style manuals, such as The Economist Style Guide.

1. Anschluss is used in German to refer exclusively to unification with Austria in 1938. The general word for “annexation” is Annexion.

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