The Grammarphobia Blog

The myth-busters get busted

Q: As a Texan, I’m dismayed to read in Origins of the Specious the old canard that Sam Houston State University was once called the Sam Houston Institute of Teaching. I’m surprised you put it in your book without checking first!

A: To our dismay, you’re right and our book is wrong.

The school now known as Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, was never the Sam Houston Institute of Teaching. Its name was changed several times over the years, but not to avoid any embarrassing acronyms.

This is particularly annoying to us, since Origins of the Specious is all about language myths. We should have exposed this one, instead of helping to spread it! Here’s how we happened to fall for it.

In researching naughty acronyms, we came across Dan Rather’s biography The Camera Never Blinks: Adventures of a TV Journalist, written with Mickey Herskowitz and published by William Morrow & Company in 1977. 

Rather, who attended the school in East Texas in the 1950s, opens his first chapter this way:

“The dream begins, most of the time, with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth.”

The teacher who believed in him, he writes, “was named Hugh Cunningham and he taught journalism in 1950 at Sam Houston State Teachers College.”

Rather then goes on to say (with no indication that he’s joking) the following:

“For whatever interest it may hold for historians, until the 1920s the official name of the college was the Sam Houston Institute of Teaching. When freshmen started wearing sweatshirts with the school’s initials the state legislature hastily passed an act and renamed it.”

This passage, which is cited in a footnote in our book, is the source of the Sam Houston Institute of Teaching anecdote that we unwittingly repeated.

Rather’s biography is a serious book and he’s a serious journalist. We think that he believed this story when he wrote his book. And we believed it when we came across it while writing ours. 

This doesn’t excuse our mistake, of course, since we could have dug deeper to verify this information. But at the time we had no reason to disbelieve Rather’s book. 

Now, for the record, here’s the true story, according to Sam Houston State University’s website.

A page added to the site in April 2010 by the school’s communications office gives a brief history of the university and this chronology of its names:

1879, founded as Sam Houston Normal Institute;

1923, renamed Sam Houston State Teachers College;

1965, renamed Sam Houston State College;

1969, renamed Sam Houston State University.

We’ve sent a corrected version of the anecdote to our publisher, Random House, and it should appear in future reprints, as well as in the ebook.

By the way, Sam Houston State University’s journalism program is now housed in the Dan Rather Communications Building. 

Like Rather, we’re former journalists, and we take the truth very seriously.

Thanks for calling this mistake to our attention, and for poking us with  that “sharp stick called truth.” 

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