Actual.

A correspondent writes: “In the Russian table of ranks you linked to, is Actual in eg. Actual privy councillor a mistranslation? It seems very odd.” I’ve wondered about that oddness myself — it’s not a mistranslation, in the sense that Russian Действительный and German Wirklicher both mean ‘actual,’ but how did that term arise? Anybody know the history of these titles? The OED entry for actual (updated November 2010) is no help; it gives no senses that are obviously appropriate here.

Comments

  1. I have no historical evidence, but I’m willing to speculate recklessly:
    I understand действительный (actual) here by analogy with исполнительный (executive). As an executive vice-president is one whose rank entitles or obliges him to execute (some strategy), an actual privy councilor is one whose rank ostensibly places him in a position to действовать– to act.
    Not that “executive” really carries that sense… it also now seems like an empty signifier of rank.

  2. In some languages, words related to English ‘actual’ and ‘actually’ seem to mean something more like ‘currently’ or ‘temporarily’ than ‘in fact’. For example, when ordering books from IBS Italia, I often see the message “Attualmente non disponibile su IBS”. I believe I’ve seen similar things on French sites.

    So, would ‘Acting privy councillor’ be a better translation? There are certainly ranks whose names imply that the holder has the duties of a higher rank. Without doing any research, I’m pretty sure ‘lieutenant’ originally meant someone holding the place of a higher officer (most likely a captain) without actually being one: ‘lieu tenant’ is French for ‘place-holder’, so what else could it have meant? A Roman proconsul was a non-consul (ex-consul, usually) with consular powers, and pro consule is Latin for ‘in place of a consul’. A ‘brevet major’ is someone who has the title and possibly the authority of a major, but is still paid as a captain. I’m pretty sure there are other examples.

  3. No, “actual privy councilor” was in no sense an “acting” position — it was the second highest rank, equivalent to full general in the army, and attaining it meant you were one of the most powerful people in the empire. There was nothing temporary about it.

  4. I would imagine that it’s like the system in Germany pre-WWI. There were actual privy councillors (wirklicher geheimer Rat) and honorary ones (Geheimrat, a very widespread title). Obviously being a real, rather than an honorary member of the ruler’s privy council was a much more significant honor, worth stating explicitly.

  5. Perhaps the explanation may be found in the fact that the Russian word “тайный” has a more transparent meaning than English “privy” – the Russian word, to this date, means “secret”. So it may be the hierarchy of “just secret” / “truly / absolutely secret”?

  6. I would imagine that it’s like the system in Germany pre-WWI.

    Ah, I’ll bet that’s it — I believe Peter the Great used Prussian models for his ranks, and your explanation makes a lot of sense.

  7. But was a holder of the rank an actual (sorry!) member of the Emperor’s Privy Council? If not, the name might imply that the holder is ranked as high as if he were a member of the Privy Council, even if he has duties elsewhere and has never served on it.

    Or was there a formal Privy Council at this time? If the P.C. was obsolete (I wouldn’t know), the rank might still imply that someone was important enough to be on it if it existed, and was in fact one of the Emperor’s top advisors, even if they never met all together formally.

    The examples I gave have names suggesting that they are temporary ranks, but the truth is that ‘lieutenant’ at least has been a specific non-temporary rank for centuries.

  8. Looks like gary pretty much confirmed my guess while I was writing my second comment. My first guess, I should say.

  9. Wait, no he didn’t: I think gary is saying that an ‘Actual’ Privy Councilor is no the ‘acting’ or ‘honorary’ one, as I had guessed, but the actual, non-honorary one. Ooops.

  10. Of course, German calque version is most probable explanation. Also, Действительный was used to distinguish a member of Russian Academy (wasn’t necessary a member = actual member) from a honorary one (to use a “honorary member” designation was absolutely necessary unless someone wanted to deceive you). This distinction was a source of a nice joke. First with Russian words: the difference between почётный член and действительный член of the academy is like difference between милостивый государь and государь император. All English version: the difference between honorary member and the actual member of the Academy is like between Dear Sir and Sire.

  11. Vladimir Vysotsky says:

    The Russian title is most likely a direct translation / calque of the German “Wirklicher Geheimer Rat”, and was introduced as is in the original table of ranks, http://encyclopedia.mil.ru/files/morf/iv_tabel_doc1hr.jpg.

    The question then remains, what would be the best English translation? The following link suggests “High Privy Councillor”, which seems more appropriate to me than “Actual”.

    http://www.proz.com/kudoz/german_to_english/genealogy/1125820-wirklicher_geheimer_rat.html

  12. The semantic upgrading of executive from those who carry out policy to those who set it must, I think, be due to the hybrid nature of the American Presidency. Hume said in 1742 that “The executive power in every government is altogether subordinate to the legislative”, by which he surely did not mean the King, but all the subordinate officials, whose job it was to carry out the laws made by Parliament with the King’s assent. Similarly, the President’s job was principally to see to the execution of the laws, but he has enough other monarchical trappings to turn the title chief executive, first applied to the presidency, into a title of supreme power.

  13. Hat: Thanks for opening the question to be teased out.

  14. The question then remains, what would be the best English translation? The following link suggests “High Privy Councillor”, which seems more appropriate to me than “Actual”.

    It certainly would be better, but this is one of those weird usages that’s been consecrated by time and custom, and there’s no hope of changing it now (especially since the Petrine Table of Ranks hasn’t exactly been a hot topic for the last century).

  15. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    It would perhaps be more appropriate (and less confusing) to use smth similar to Associate/Full Professor distinction; but I agree that it’s probably too late in the day to change this unfortunate custom.

  16. slawkenbergius says:

    I’ll nth the wirklicher explanation, and I also want to add that the names for the ranks don’t actually have any sort of referent past the Petrine era. For example, надворный советник (aulic councillor, rank VII) originally referred to an aulic court judge, but the name was retained even after the aulic courts were abolished in 1727. The same obviously goes for the various College-related ranks, and even the guberniia ones (Petrine gubernii were a different administrative unit from the later ones).

  17. “one of those weird usages that’s been consecrated by time and custom”

    But if you actually lived in a society that was ruled by an aristocracy, would it seem weird? I doubt it.

    Status in these societies was based upon hereditary and endowed titles. To be given the title “Honorary Privy Councillor” would be quite a feather in one’s cap. But if you drop the “Honorary,” it sounds even better. It sounds more like the real thing, and so conveys greater apparent status. But then you have to have a term for the real Privy Councillors, hence “Actual.”

    The profusion of empty, high-flown titles in the very late, very shrunken Byzantine Empire, was a great gift to science-fiction writers, who are fond of constructing worlds containing decayed ancient societies full of functionaries with bizarre and obscure titles.

  18. Status in these societies was based upon hereditary and endowed titles. To be given the title “Honorary Privy Councillor” would be quite a feather in one’s cap. But if you drop the “Honorary,” it sounds even better. It sounds more like the real thing, and so conveys greater apparent status. But then you have to have a term for the real Privy Councillors, hence “Actual.”

    Yes, but do you have any evidence for such a sequence of events? Many are the plausible explanations, few are the true ones.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    actual ≠ actuel, attuale

    The French and Italian words seem to be used in the same way, quite differently from the English one. In French, actuellement means ‘currrently, at the present time’. You can talk about la mode actuelle ‘current fashion’, la politique actuelle ‘current politics or policy’, le régime actuel ‘the current regime’, etc. Similarly with the noun: when I was very young (before TV was available!), when you went to see a movie there was first a short film showing snippets of current events, called les actualités.

    Actual = wirklich

    Does this mean something like “effective”?

  20. Yes, “действительный” works like “full” as opposed to “associate”. Действительный член Академии наук, a full member of the Academy of science, is one step up from член-корреспондент, a corresponding member. BTW, статский советник was a relatively high rank, 5th out of 14, but neither here nor there – in the military ranking, it corresponded to brigadier-general, which was abolished in 1801. In addition, it was the highest rank in the civil service hierarchy that did not confer hereditary nobility. The next one, действительный статский советник, was a general’s rank and the appropriate address was, Ваше Превосходительство.

  21. @Dmitry Prokofyev: I’m not sure there’s anything better about “assistant professor,” “associate professor,” and “professor.” They may be more familiar terms to many of us, but they are by no means compositional. The “assistant” at least indicates that rank is the lowest, but holders of that rank do not actually assist anyone. The “associate” is completely opaque. Moreover, there related hierarchies with confusingly different terminologies (for example, “research assistant professor” is one step up from “research associate”).

  22. marie-lucie says:

    assistant/associate

    These titles seem to date from an earlier form of administration in universities. They suggest that at one time a single professor was appointed for a given discipline or subdiscipline and hired his own team of subordinates assigned to teach the courses set up by the professor. They started as “assistants” closely supervised by the professor, and could later graduate to being “associates”, trusted by the professor as almost equal to him, and given a large measure of independence about what and how to teach. I don’t know if that picture corresponds to historical reality, but it would make sense. Nowadays of course the hiring and promoting of faculty is done differently.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    Titles in modern (post-Czarist and with no translation difficulties) hierarchies can be quite obscure especially when you start stacking modifiers. For example, both “Associate Deputy Attorney General” and “Deputy Associate Attorney General” are real job titles in the U.S. Department of Justice, but separate ones which are not interchangeable with each other.

  24. Michael says:

    According to the Dictionary of Marine Corps Terms and Words Used in Vietnam, ‘Actual’ was “radio talk for unit commander.” (http://www.vietvet.org/usmcdict.htm)

  25. Michael says:

    (Which doesn’t address the question of why it’s in the Russian, but might still be of interest.)

  26. slawkenbergius says:

    Well, for most of the imperial period, hereditary nobility was conferred by the 8th rank. Anecdotally I’ve found lots of cases of commoners working their way up to 8 or even 7 but very few any higher than that.

  27. “Well, for most of the imperial period, hereditary nobility was conferred by the 8th rank.”

    From 1845, the it was the 8th rank in the military but the 5th in the civil service. From 1856, the threshold was raised again, to the 6th (colonel) and the 4th (действительный статский советник).

  28. Another comparison might be between executive and non-executive directors of a company. An executive director is someone who sits on the board by virtue of being a senior member of the management – the chief executive or chief financial officer, say. A non-executive director is an outsider who has no other function at the company except to sit on the board and oversee operations.

    Privy Councillor is a real term still in the UK, but it’s pretty much entirely honorary; there are about 600 of them. Technically the Cabinet is a committee of the Privy Council.

    I would probably translate it as “privy councillor” and “honorary privy councillor” – clearer, if less faithful.

    Hume said in 1742 that “The executive power in every government is altogether subordinate to the legislative”, by which he surely did not mean the King,

    He surely did! Within living memory there had been a long and bloody series of wars to establish that very fact – that the King (and the rest of the executive) cannot act save as the legislature allows.

    According to the Dictionary of Marine Corps Terms and Words Used in Vietnam, ‘Actual’ was “radio talk for unit commander.”

    Correct. “Hello, Pygmalion Two One, this is Language Hat” means the person talking to Pygmalion Two One could be any member of the vast Language Hat headquarters staff. But “this is Language Hat Actual” means it is Steve himself speaking.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    MH: ‘lieu tenant’ is French for ‘place-holder

    This is valid for Old French, but it would not be right as a modern franslation of “place-holder”. The verb phrase tenir lieu de, literally ‘to hold the place of’, can be used in many contexts for anything or anyone replacing/doing duty for/serving the purpose of, something or someone else.

  30. I would probably translate it as “privy councillor” and “honorary privy councillor” – clearer, if less faithful.

    Not faithful at all, since there was nothing honorary about it — an Actual Privy Councilor was second in rank only to a Канцлер (Chancellor) or Штатс-секретарь (State Secretary), of whom (if I’m remembering correctly) there were few in Russian history.

  31. No, I mean I’d translate “actual privy councillor” as “privy councillor”, and “privy councillor” as “honorary privy councillor”.

  32. Ah, gotcha! Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  33. Within living memory there had been a long and bloody series of wars to establish that very fact – that the King (and the rest of the executive) cannot act save as the legislature allows.

    You’re right that he did mean the King, as the context makes clear. But the rest of your statement is a little anachronistic. In 1742, the Royal Prerogative was still a real force in British politics. In particular, though Parliament was supreme, Hume points out that there was an effective check, not on the Commons itself, but on its individual members. The King could and did appoint MPs to offices of profit and honor, especially the former, as a bribe to get them to vote his way. As he says a bit later:

    We may, therefore, give to this [royal] influence what name we please; we may call it by the invidious appellations of corruption and dependence; but some degree and some kind of it are inseparable from the very nature of the constitution, and necessary to the preservation of our mixed government.

    The U.S. constitution bars this particular check in Article I, section 6:

    No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.

    But on the other hand, the executive veto (and even more so, the threat of its use) remained a living force in the colonies, though it had died out in Great Britain, and so an explicit check on the legislative became encoded into the U.S. Constitution.

  34. John Cowan:
    Is Article I, Section 6 enforced? The first person I thought to check seems to be in violation. John Kerry was elected to a six-year term in the Senate in 2008, started that term in January 2009, and quit two years early in February 2013 to be Secretary of State. The Wikipedia ‘Cabinet of the United States’ article says that the Secretary of State’s pay was last set (at $199,700) in 2011. It’s a safe bet that it was not just ‘set’ but raised, so it appears that Kerry is blatantly violating the Constitution by serving in a post whose “Emoluments” have been “encreased” during the term to which he was elected. Unless of course someone thought to make sure that he only gets whatever the pay was before 2011, in which case he’s OK.

    If he is getting $199,700, where are all the Constitutional lawyers, and why isn’t this already a scandal?

  35. When Hilary Clinton was named Secretary of State, the salary was lowered to whatever it was when she took office in the Senate, I’d assume the same was done for Kerry. Last year his salary was $183,500 according to various sources.

  36. J. W. Brewer says:

    That tweak used w/ former Sen. Clinton is commonly called the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxbe_fix (after a well-known precedent from the Watergate era). There is a fairly obscure academic debate about its legitimacy but it seems accepted in practice unless and until someone can convince a federal court otherwise. One of the scholarly articles (from around 20 years back) has the engaging title “Is Lloyd Bentsen Unconstitutional?”

  37. Which is very unlikely, as no one has been able to discover anyone with standing to sue: those who tried were uniformly shot down in court. In general, it’s the court of (informed) public opinion that defends I.6, plus a desire to see the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. In my only semi-informed opinion, people who object to the Saxbe fix, which has been around since 1909 and obviously satisfies the straightforward intent of the prohibition, are hyper-textualists on all fours with those who would deny office to a President-elect born by Caesarian section (and so not a “natural born citizen”). It is perhaps noteworthy that in contrast to the various restrictions on Presidents, there is nothing to stop anyone, even an alien or a minor, from being appointed to a federal judgeship, if the President and the Senate agree on it.

  38. J. W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure I’d want to predict the outcome of a controversy over the President and Senate’s ability to nominate and confirm a federal judge who because of young age or lack of appropriate citizenship/immigration status would be presumptively unable to carry out his/her duties (or at least get paid for doing so) without violating other federal laws that cannot be changed w/o the concurrence of the House. (I’m skeptical whether there’s ever been a non-citizen judge and when Alex Kozinski* became a federal judge in ’85 at age 35 he was said to be the youngest one confirmed since the 19th century.)

    *A naturalized citizen of Romanian birth who is also notable for being probably the only federal judge ever to have both been a member of Communist youth group (before his family fled Romania) and then (after arriving in the US) a contestant on the Dating Game.

  39. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    Brett:
    Of course. It seems to me though that, funnily enough, it mostly goes to show how similar are the two cases: both hierarchies are rather fanciful (not to say pompous) and archaic for their time, pretty much out of connection with their original meaning, and yet perfectly understandable to those existing in (or at least familiar with) their respective contexts, be it the 19th century Russia’s civil service or today’s academia. So why not use one to approximate the other?
    To digress, I can’t help to recall the anecdote that seems to connect the two rather nicely: it was, I believe, Arnold Sommerfeld who insisted – up to the point of not responding otherwise – to be never addressed as Herr Professor or Herr Doktor, but only as Herr Geheimrat.

  40. Or, in Russian, Ваше высокопревосходительство.

  41. A teacher who prefers his honorary title to his earned ones? Pfui.

  42. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    Yeah, well, for all that he was a teacher of a handful of Nobel prize winners (Heisenberg, Pauli, etc.) and one of the founders of the modern physics in his own right. Go guess.

  43. Nominated 81 times for a Nobel Prize and never won, too.

  44. Getting back to Old Russia bureaucratic ranks, I don’t see a reason to translate them into English such that English names had any apparent meaning. Surely whatever meaning there was in Russian in 1722 (and I’m not sure there was much to begin with) it was completely lost by the 19th century when hierarchy based on civil ranks reached its full blossom. Also, it makes no sense to translate any of the ranks with a honorary prefix. None of them were honorary. BTW, looking up some info on the Table, I found this nice book explaining, among other things, the role of the Table in Russian classics.

  45. Oh, I entirely agree; I was just wondering how the word “actual” came to be used in the first place, but it would be silly to retranslate the titles. And Что непонятно у классиков is a great book — I’ve been reading it (in brief snatches at bedtime) for months, and it’s taught me a tremendous amount. (I’m reading about caftans now; I had never heard of the азям, whose name comes ultimately from ajam.)

    Incidentally, it occurred to me this morning that my father was a chinovnik — he spent most of his career as agricultural attaché in a number of countries (an attaché is to an ambassador what a cabinet officer is to the president; he could have been promoted to ambassador but didn’t want the added pressure of that demanding job). I wonder what his chin would have been? Would he have been addressed as Ваше высокородие or Ваше высокоблагородие?

  46. Which countries? Japan we know about.

  47. Thailand and Argentina. He had enough seniority by the mid-’60s to be given Paris (which my mother would have loved, and which would have sent my life in an entirely different direction), but he hated fuss and bother and parties and formality, all of which would have been rampant in France, so he opted for Buenos Aires, little guessing that Tricky Dick would appoint an ignorant and overbearing pal as ambassador there, forcing the staff to do his work for him and put up with his bullshit, which drove my dad to drink. And people wonder why I’m an anarchist!

  48. If you really care, probably you can look up information in this database. I am too lazy.

  49. Petrus Augustinus says:

    We have the same in Hungarian; the exact term is the exact translation of ‘actual privy councillor’: ‘valóságos (belső) titkos tanácsos’ with ‘inner’ added. It originated from the German states and it denoted the inner circle of a king’s or prince’s councillors.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    The Russian title is most likely a direct translation / calque of the German “Wirklicher Geheimer Rat”, and was introduced as is in the original table of ranks, http://encyclopedia.mil.ru/files/morf/iv_tabel_doc1hr.jpg.

    Interesting how Zeug- was rendered as цеихъ, and Hofmeister as гоѳмеистеръ.

    Actual = wirklich

    Does this mean something like “effective”?

    Are you wondering if wirklich is related to wirken “to (have an) effect”, Wirkung “effect”? It means “real”, Wirklichkeit being “reality”. “Actual” is eigentlich (modulo some differences in usage); aktuell is used much like in French.

    French actualités still means “news”. I’ve seen the joke spelling les niouzes, though. :-)

    These titles seem to date from an earlier form of administration in universities. They suggest that at one time a single professor was appointed for a given discipline or subdiscipline and hired his own team of subordinates assigned to teach the courses set up by the professor. They started as “assistants” closely supervised by the professor, and could later graduate to being “associates”, trusted by the professor as almost equal to him, and given a large measure of independence about what and how to teach. I don’t know if that picture corresponds to historical reality, but it would make sense. Nowadays of course the hiring and promoting of faculty is done differently.

    While the hiring wasn’t done this way (anymore?), universities otherwise worked this way in Austria till quite recently: from top to bottom, the ranks were ordentlicher Professor (or Ordinarius*), außerordentlicher Professor, and Assistent, the latter being assigned to a particular Ordinary Professor rather than merely to a particular institute/department. Only in the last 10 to 15 years have I seen Assistenzprofessor, a transparent calque from (American?) English; and even today, emeriti are abbreviated as Emer.O.Prof. in the course directory as if anyone else than a full professor could become an emeritus.

    * The reform of 1975 demoted those people from gods to demigods. The organization before that is often called Ordinarienuniversität.

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  1. […] the titles “actual privy councillor” and “actual state councillor.” Now I think I do know, thanks to Languagehat and his commenter gary. It’s a calque of the German word wirklicher, which was used in pre–World War I […]

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