Dr. Havilah Babcock and finding just the right words

Special to The StateJuly 12, 2014 

  • Babcock’s workbook

    Some examples from Havilah Babcock’s workbook, “I Want a Word,” that he used to teach University of South Carolina students

    •  Babcock asked students to “indicate the number of syllables each word contains and pronounce it accordingly. Have you been treating these words right?” Some of the words included in the list are chocolate, every, sophomore, particularly and salary.

    •  Babcock included examples of etymology in his workbook. One example is the word good-by, which he spelled without an “e” at the end. “Good-by is a contraction of God be with ye,” the workbook noted.

    •  Babcock also expounded upon what he considered the funniest word in the English language. “What is the funniest word in the English language? I’ll nominate scat. Lexicographers blithely ignore its existence. Etymologists throw up their hands. But every cat knows its meaning by instinct. Say scat! and a cat, any cat, will straight away scat.”

It seems fitting (appropriate) to commence (begin) this article with a concise (short) narrative (story) about a copywriter whose moniker (name) is unknown but who, back in the day, took a class called English 129 under the tutelage (direction) of Dr. Havilah Babcock at the University of South Carolina.

The copywriter bided her time (waited) with great forbearance (patience) to employ (use) a peculiar (odd) word she had learned in the class. When that occasion (opportunity) finally arrived, theheadline she penned (wrote) for The State was: LOCAL MAN DEFENESTRATES WIFE.

In other words, the man threw his wife out a window.

“Defenestrates – that word fascinated her, and she’d been looking for a way to use it,” said Dick Sanders, a retired high school English teacher who graduated USC in 1959 and now lives in Irmo.

Like the copywriter, Sanders also took Babcock’s course and now is searching far and wide for the small workbook – called “I Want a Word” — that the professor wrote and used in his class.

“This was his textbook,” Sanders said, rubbing the worn gray cover of the petite paperback, held in safekeeping at the South Caroliniana Library.

“My copy was purloined,” he said, chuckling. “That means stolen.

“About a year or two before I retired from teaching, I had that book in my cabinet at (Richland Northeast High) school. There was a student who was a kleptomaniac. He stole a whole bunch of books. So, I retired, and years later discovered that my workbook was gone.

“I loved that little book. I’ve thought about it for years and, just recently, I decided I was going to see if I could find another copy of it. It’s on my bucket list to find it and maybe get buried with it. …Dr. Babcock was a jewel. He was brilliant, but so unassuming.”

Babcock and his wife, Alice, hailed from Virginia. She was a high school math teacher, and he began his tenure at USC in 1927, where he taught English, eventually serving as chairman of that department. Babcock retired in 1964 and died later that same year.

He was an avid gardener who grew grapefruit-sized tomatoes. He was an outdoorsman who loved to fish and hunt quail. He wrote about his passion for the outdoors and was published in magazines such as Field and Stream. He was also a noted essayist, novelist and humorist.

But he also was a one-of-a-kind English professor who treated words with respect and humor, often comparing them to people.

In the introduction to “I Want a Word,” he wrote: “Reading about words should be as interesting as reading about people, so much do they have in common. There are old maids and bachelors among words, and married couples with teeming households. There are words with skeletons in their closets – living them down – and aristocrats fast going to the dogs. … There is another group of words that must not be overlooked – such everlastingly useful little face-savers as hickey, doohickey, gadget, doodad, thingamabob, thingamadoodle, thingamajig, what-not, what-you-may-call-it, and Mister-what’s-his-name. What do they mean? Everything and nothing, bless their indefinite hearts. But as household handles and temporizers, they are well-nigh indispensable.”

“Dr. Babcock,” Sanders said, “would dictate orally in class, saying, ‘Now, I want a word that means….’ I remember he once talked about a ‘corduroy road’. That’s a bumpy road, a country road. His class wasn’t easy. You had to learn 50 words a day, and there was a pop quiz at the beginning of every class.”

Sanders said that Babcock always had a cigarette — with an ever-lengthening ash at the end of it — hanging from one side of his mouth as he taught class. His secretary faithfully brought him a chocolate milkshake before the beginning of class and once posted a notice for students, at the beginning of hunting season, that said, “Dr. Babcock will be sick all next week.”

Students had to sign up for Babcock’s class a year in advance because it was so popular. Some of those same students, when they died, had included in their obituaries that they were USC graduates who took English 129 with Babcock.

“He was a painter of words,” Sanders said, closing the workbook and gently placing it back on the library table.

Sanders has searched the Internet and bookstores for the manual, to no avail. So now Sanders, who is pushing 78, is hoping someone who has a copy of the workbook will be willing to give or sell it to him.

“I just miss having one in my possession. To be able to find one now would bring back all the words and fun we had in that class. It would bring some closure to my own teaching and my love of vocabulary.”

Sanders can be reached at (803) 730-3817. McInerney is a former columnist for The State. Her email address is salley@hartcom.net.

 

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