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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Pseudodoxia Etymologica - Masterpieces and Schrödinger's Boggart
For years, I've been carrying around in my head, as one of those nuggety truths that are so pleasant to take out and burnish of a winter's evening, the fact that the word "masterpiece" may refer not only to the crowning achievement of someone's career, but also to the work that proves they have learned their craft, allowing them to slough off the name of apprentice. For a scholar, it's the PhD thesis; for a Shaolin monk (from my memory of 1970s TV) it's snatching the pebbles from his master's hand; for a joiner, a really nice cabinet. These are the pieces that prove their mastery and earn their membership of the guild - hence masterpiece.

Is this sense of "masterpiece" well known? Can I use it in a piece for undergraduates without having to stop and explain it?

In another part of the forest... it's well known that J. K. Rowling uses various creatures from folklore and myth, etc. Mostly, she uses them fairly "straight" - a werewolf in the Potterverse is much like a werewolf in most other places one encounters them, and is subject to the same rules. So why does she play such silly buggers with the good old boggart? This mischievous household spirit of the genus Poltergeist is hardly the most obscure - but when a boggart makes an appearance in The Prisoner of Azkaban it's quite different from its traditional manifestation, being described as "a shape-shifter [that...] can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most". No one knows what Rowling's boggart looks like when it is unobserved, making it some kind of cross between Schrödinger's cat and Room 101 - in fact, nothing like a boggart at all except in its desire to mischief humans. Yet now, to my students (and no doubt to their contemporaries the world over) that is what a boggart is. I find that regrettable - but also out of character for Rowling, who tends to play things fairly straight.

I certainly know the term masterpiece in both senses, but the qualification-level accomplishment meaning is so much rarer that I would automatically assume the word was being used in its more modern sense, unless context made the old sense very clear.

I have also long assumed that it was more at Masters' level than PhD, but could well be wrong.

I think the term only had currency historically in the context of craft guilds, so it may be a moot point as to whether it corresponds to Masters or PhD level.

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I love it too, but suspect you're right. Well, I can probably work it in without grinding to a halt.

IMHO they are called "apprentice pieces". A masterpiece is the crowning glory of one's career. Which my PhD thesis is not!

According to this, the terms are related. I would like to be able to say something like, "'His Dark Materials'" may be Philip Pullman's masterpiece, but his masterpiece is Clockwork." Too convoluted, perhaps...

Or rather, the masterpiece is what the journeyman makes to demonstrate (s)he's graduated to master.

(FWIW, I know this sense, but often have to explain it when I use the word that way.)


Then it seems I was conflating ceasing to be an apprentice and becoming a master craftsman, whereas there is an intermediate position - that of journeyman?

Yup -- apprentice learns the basics of the craft under a master (and/or his deputies, including his journeymen and even older apprentices). When the apprentice has that under their belt, they then journeyed to and studied other masters, thus the journeyman, to learn other ways of doing things, catch up on innovations the master didn't know, and so on. This was a major vector of craft-knowledge diffusion in medieval Europe. After a few years of this, the journeyman created a master-piece that was judged by various masters, typically but not always under the auspices of the guild, by way of showing mastery of the craft and that they're ready to be awarded the title of master.


Thanks for that - you've saved me from a slavering solecism!

Is this sense of "masterpiece" well known?

Reasonably so, at least.

Can I use it in a piece for undergraduates without having to stop and explain it?

Well, you should be able to ...