WASHINGTON -- When communicating, little things can mean a lot. The actress Margaret Anglin once sent the following note to another actress, Minnie Fiske: ''Margaret Anglin says Mrs. Fiske is the best actress in America.'' Mrs. Fiske added two commas and returned the note: ''Margaret Anglin, says Mrs. Fiske, is the best actress in America.''
Buy a television set, you can get a ''universal'' remote control, so called because it controls both the set and a VCR. Is it ''universal'' because a television set and a VCR are, for most Americans, the universe? But perhaps it is possible to subject common usage to scrutiny that is too exacting. As they now know at California State University at Chico.
There someone used the ''d'' word and in the ensuing hubbub someone else used the ''l'' word. By the time the dust settled, sensitivities had been rubbed raw and an entertaining episode had been added to the annals of political correctness. Here is what happened, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The university administration was looking for a professor of philosophy, so it ran an advertisement: ''We are seeking a dynamic classroom teacher and program builder. . . .'' Well, sensitive people can only take so much in silence, and two women, an associate professor of English and the university's affirmative-action director (who initially approved the ad), spoke out. In an e-mail message to an administrator at another institution the affirmative-action director explained:
''The concern over the use of the word dynamic in advertising was over the fact that this term might send a message that the university is only interested in a certain kind of teaching style -- the kinetic, dramatic style. As many members of minority groups are not associated with this style and as many women, particularly 'lady-like' women do not go in for this style, it was decided that, as what we are looking for is an excellent teacher regardless of their [sic] teaching styles, it would be better to stay away from the term dynamic to avoid confusion.''
Let us not trivialize this insight by citing contrary evidence that is merely anecdotal. (Jesse Jackson and Lady Thatcher, not dynamic; Al Gore and Richard Lugar, dynamic.) The university's provost, a sensitive sort, saw the point, saying ''there is no necessary connection between being dynamic and being an excellent teacher,'' which is true. In subsequent ads the word ''excellent'' replaced ''dynamic.''
The associate professor of English said a dynamic teacher may not be excellent, merely a ''windbag.'' She also noted that her Asian and Hispanic students are more reticent than whites in classes. However, she gave a Darwinian explanation of why most women academics are dynamic: ''We had to compete with aggressive white males to get our jobs.''
A Chico professor of history who is marvelously unmarked by modern history dismissed the controversy as ''an incredibly tortured abuse of the English language,'' and a professor of philosophy said the university had advertised for a program builder, for goodness sake, and ''didn't say 'inseminator' or 'nurturer.' '' And it had better not.
A dean's job description
A dean -- deans are sensitive; it is part of the job description -- said future advertisements will use adjectives like ''innovative and creative.'' Only someone as dumb as a drawer full of doorknobs would suggest that those adjectives do not fit some minorities.
But before bidding farewell to sensitivity-soaked Chico, it would be nice to know why an associate professor of English bandies the provocative phrase ''lady-like'' and yet is allowed to remain at large. Everyone knows that that locution serves to privilege the phallocentric patriarchy's gender-benders.
And why would a self-respecting dynamic woman academic, having clawed her way into academia past aggressive white males, give a hoot what happens to females so retrograde as to allow themselves to seem lady-like?
Such conundrums constantly vex and roil campuses. And they should. After all, this is an age in which a town has removed ''Dead End'' signs because they cause some people to think of death, and one university's law-review uses, when possible, only female pronouns (except, of course, when referring to criminal defendants) and an Eddie Bauer catalog has offered pitch-saturated kindling wood ''felled by lightning or other natural causes,'' lest the friends of trees have their feelings hurt. Higher education must keep pace.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.