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Are you being served?

Some people work; others serve. This puzzles one of my readers:

Here's a Q i've always wanted to ask a journalist. . . why, even when a priest is convicted of child sex abuse, do reporters routinely write "Fr. Smith served at parishes in New York, New Jersey. . ."

Why not 'worked at?' Why 'served?' The only other occupation that gets this deferential treatment: the military.

The answer is that the language of service is conventional for certain occupations. The clergy serve their congregations, the military serves the country, government employees serve the populace. That is why we speak of military service, public service, public servants and the like. The language is so ingrained that we continue to use it when priests are convicted of abuse, officers are cashiered, elected officials charged with corruption. The cant of service has something to do with our discomfort with ambition overtly displayed.

People do not become priests because they want to dress in fancy vestments and be the center of attention; they enter the priesthood because they are called to service. In much the same way, they receive a divine call to move from one parish to another, more prosperous or prestigious parish.

People do not go into the military because they want to wear gold braid, order people around and fire off guns; they want to defend their country.

People do not run for public office because they lust for power (and perhaps graft). They have to be cajoled, called to serve the people, even though they would much rather be back on the farm with their children and livestock. In American politics, it’s best to go back to the farm when you leave office, even if you didn’t come from one.

We want to avert our eyes from ambition too nakedly displayed. It makes us uncomfortable, just as people too openly desperate for our affection make us shy away.

No doubt there is genuine interest in serving in the church, the military and government. If talk of service were entirely hypocritical, it’s doubtful than any of these institutions would function at all. But human nature being the mixed creature it invariably is, we have to think that the cant of service also coves up the parts best not displayed in public.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:15 PM | | Comments (2)


Can one as editor speak of being "irritated into service?

It irritates me considerably whenever a baseball broadcast lists a player's "years of service," as if being paid millions of dollars to play a game is in any way "service." I've being seeing it a lot more this year than in the past.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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