Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Crisis of Diplomacy

Not too long ago I found myself alone in a doctor’s office.  A nurse had taken my vital signs and gravely recorded them, first on a chart and then in a computer file.  She then left with the unconvincing promise that the doctor himself would be in “very shortly,” shutting the door behind her.  I always find this an awkward moment, though I am usually prepared for it by having a book in a grocery store carrying-bag.  But for some reason I was on this occasion bereft of that resource.  I had nothing to do but sit there surrounded by a vaguely oppressive feeling of scrubbed white cleanliness over-illuminated by fluorescent lighting.

            There is nothing that makes one feel more self conscious about what one is doing than having nothing to do.  For while it was unlikely that the doctor would actually appear “very shortly,” that was at least a possibility I couldn’t discount.  I didn’t want the guy to burst through the door and find me scratching my itchy scalp, let alone picking my nose.  So I began to study my environment.  It turned out there was more of it than I had first taken in.  One wall was covered, and I do mean covered, with fancily printed and nicely framed documents attesting to the doctor’s academic qualifications and professional achievements.  Along one wall was a shelf, on which rested a row of document-like plaques attesting that this man had been recognized among America’s Best Doctors in the years 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015.  I strained to remember whether I had been treated by him in 2014 and, if so, whether I had found the service adequate.

            Immediately I began worrying.  There are of course statutory worries one has in a doctor’s office.  They are legitimate and indeed expected.  Is it going to hurt?  Is she going to make me give up bratwurst?  Could it be, God forbid, cancer?  My worries, however, were not in this authorized genre.  Of a sudden I realized that although I have no fewer than four strenuously earned college degrees, I have no framed diplomas and absolutely no idea where the unframed ones could possibly be.  It goes without saying that I have no Top Professor plaques or even documentary proof that I rank among the Outstanding Retirees of Mercer County—which I certainly do, even if I say so myself.  I do have a passport and a driver’s license.  Somewhere there is even my original Social Security card.  From a file called “Vital Documents” I can produce evidence that I was born, baptized, confirmed, and married.  I can demonstrate that I an enrolled in Medicare—both parts A and B.  I have a CVS discount card.  But I have no proof, none at all, that I am educated; that is worrying.   

Call me eccentric, but I usually find that medical worry can be somewhat assuaged by etymology.  Hyperplasia sounds really bad until you see that it’s mainly plastic.  So I started thinking about the word diploma.  It’s one of those words that wandered from Greek to Latin, a journey that explains the rarely encountered and pedantic plural form diplomata, as in “I can’t lay my hands on a single one of my diplomata.”  The actual meaning of the term is “[a written document] folded in two.”  The term diploma is therefore similar in origin to the Latin terms used by printers, and until fairly recently in common general use, to denote the different sizes of printed sheets: folio, quarto, octavo, meaning respectively folded once, twice, or thrice, and yielding a finished product of four, eight, or sixteen printed pages.  For long centuries the principal writing material used for important documents was parchment (vellum), and that is why a college diploma is still sometimes called a “sheepskin”.  The single-sheet unfolded and framed documents hanging in medical offices are in technical printing terms broadsides (posters).

People can be certified for authority in fields other than medicine, of course.  Among the most important of early diploma-bearers, or diplomats, were those certified representatives of political power authorized to conduct business as surrogates of the monarch.  What such people did, or were supposed to do, was early recognized as the important craft, skill, or art that we call diplomacy.  This is a considerable evolution from a folded piece of paper, but language will have its revenge, and there will always be a whiff of doubleness wherever diplomats gather.  On the whole, however, and certainly on the surface, diplomats must try to be sensitive, courteous, amiable, and as non-committal as possible while trying to wrest concessions and commitments from others.  They should be pleasant of speech and masters of cliché and elegant circumlocution.  Under no circumstances should they employ the word spade to denote a hand-held digging tool.  They should, in short, be diplomatic.