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A ballet dancer who did not apprentice himself raw would never expect to perform in Carnegie Hall, and yet untrained, poorly read writers everywhere are scratching down novels with high hopes of triumph.

Source

Does this mean a ballet dancer who didn't get lessons from teachers when he was a beginner doesn't think he can become a pro?

  • Reading this question once again and I think that the teachers might not be absolutely necessary. Usually, the word apprentice implies a teacher, because it's a kind of learning from those who are experienced. But here we have he who didn't apprentice himself. It seems to emphasize more on practicing on his own, with or without his master. – Damkerng T. Dec 26 '13 at 9:37
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I think it's meant to be clever wordplay – a pun of sorts.

The word raw has several definitions; here are a few:

raw (adj.)

1 (of food) not cooked ⇒ raw onion
2 (prenominal) in an unfinished, natural, or unrefined state; not treated by manufacturing or other processes ⇒ raw materials for making steel, raw brick
3 (of an edge of material) unhemmed; liable to fray
4 (of the skin, a wound, etc) having the surface exposed or abraded, esp painfully
5 ignorant, inexperienced, or immature ⇒ a raw recruit

Which meaning is being used here? At first glance, the obvious choice is Def. #5: inexperienced. However, if you try inserting the synonym into the original sentence, it's not a very good fit:

A ballet dancer who did not apprentice himself inexperienced would never expect to perform in Carnegie Hall.

The phrase "apprentice himself inexperienced" doesn't make much sense. It is reminscent of phrases like "work himself to the bone," but the word inexperienced doesn't work quite like raw does. However, if we switch to Def. #4, we can insert the synonymous words, and the sentence will still make sense:

A ballet dancer who did not apprentice himself until he feet were blistered and calloused would never expect to perform in Carnegie Hall.

That sentence makes sense; essentially, it means: Unless you work your tail off, you won't make it to the top.

However, the word raw works very well with the word apprentice; together, they form a double-meaning of sorts. When I read the original:

A ballet dancer who did not apprentice himself raw would never expect to perform in Carnegie Hall.

what comes to mind is:

A ballet dancer who, when he was raw (that is, when he was unrefined and inexperienced), never had a mentor who worked him until he was raw (that is, until his feet were blistered and sore) would never expect to perform in Carnegie Hall.

This literary device – deliberately choosing a word that shades a sentence with a double meaning – is neither new or uncommon; Shakespeare is famous for it. Given that the original sentence is found in an essay about great writers, it's not surprising that the author tried one of the tricks of great writers.

  • This is really convincing, and I think you are right! Also +1 for "work your tail off". I was always thinking about what would be a polite phrase for such similar phrases often heard in movies and talk shows, which use an a- word or a b- word instead of tail. – Damkerng T. Dec 26 '13 at 9:47
  • Oh I see! What a clever insight. What about "would never expect to perform"? Does this mean "They don't think they will be able to perform at the Hall?" – user2492 Dec 26 '13 at 15:54
  • Or maybe "...will never get an opportunity to perform at the Hall." Certain iconic places (like Carnegie Hall, e.g.) are used in metaphors like this; for aspiring actors, one might say, "I'm not expecting him to land a part on Broadway," for example, or "I wouldn't expect to see her starring in Hollywood." Referring an aspiring baseball player, one might say, "I'd be surprised to see him start for the Yankees;" or, for a law professor: "I don't think we'll find him teaching at Harvard any time soon." – J.R. Dec 26 '13 at 17:11
  • The meaning is clearer when the sentence has been quoted in its entirety. – Mari-Lou A Nov 26 '16 at 20:34
  • @Mari-LouA - LOL! Most sentences are. :-) – J.R. Nov 27 '16 at 0:29
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In short, yes. Here's why:

Let's say you decide to go running barefooted down the street. If you never do this, then your feet may go raw pretty quickly. Likewise, if you're chopping wood and not wearing gloves (and don't chop wood often), your hands might go raw after you finish chopping a cord.

Going raw in this context means that your hands get red and swollen, blistering and possibly bleeding. The result of going raw, though, is that whatever is raw now will become calloused later, and therefore tougher. Once they are tougher, then you will be able to chop more wood, or run further barefoot, assuming you keep it up.

Apply this to the ballet dancer: if he doesn't find himself constantly apprenticed to a teacher and always practicing under their tutelage, then he will never build up his skills to be good enough to perform in Carnagie Hall.

  • So they will never think they will be able to perform at Carnegie? – user2492 Dec 26 '13 at 5:34
  • @kih1930 What they think doesn't really matter. What matter is: did they practice hard enough?. If they didn't, then it is very unlikely that they would perform there. – Damkerng T. Dec 26 '13 at 7:45

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