IN A RECENT ISSUE of The Nation magazine, there was an ad for a scholarly conference, and among the people listed as participants were Renata Adler and Mary McCarthy. Adler was listed as "critic and author" and McCarthy as "author and critic," and lest you think this is just a high-brow version of the reluctance women have to wearing the same dress, I am here to tell you it is not. It instead represents mankind's search for the perfect title.

One way to get a title is to write for book review magazines. They have the authority to bestow such titles as critic, literary critic, and the penultimate literary title, social critic. The highest of all literary titles can be awarded only by the New York Times Book Review. It is "observer of the American scene," and it seems to have been retired with Edmund Wilson. I think that to earn it, you have to be fat.

False and ridiculous titles are not limited to the literary world. In Show Biz, for instance, the title "Miss" as in "And now, Miss Peggy Lee" is reserved for older women. Mister, on the other hand, is reserved for singers with reputed connections to The Mob. Frank Sinatra is Mister Frank Sinatra. This, like the title Don, shows respect for the power of the person.

If respect for the talent of the person is what is meant, then the person's occupation is said in a sort of redundant fashion -- a singer of songs. Again, Frank Sinatra. Judy Garland was also a singer of songs and also, by virtue of age, a Miss. No one, though, is ever a dancer of dances or a fiddler of fiddles, but there are singers' singers (once again Sinatra, but also Miss Mabel Mercer), dancers' dancers and, alas, a writer's writer. There is, thank God, no critic's critic and no -- I hope -- dermatologist's dermatologist, and if there is, I don't want to hear about it.

In politics, the ultimate title is "statesman." This, like fame for a poet, can only be earned by an American after death, and even then it is reserved for the wealthy. Americans will, however, bestow this on Europeans, but only if the person is retired or if no one can figure out what the person really does. Thus, Charles de Gaulle became a statesman after his retirement, but Kurt Waldheim is already one and Winston Churchill, who was wrong about so much, is in America considered the Greatest Statesman of them all. (That's okay. In France, Jerry Lewis is considered a great film director.)

Should a European statesman become infirm, he gets promoted automatically to "elder statesman." There is no such thing as a younger statesman, and in America no secretary of state can ever become any kind of statesman. The terms are reserved for investment bankers who dabble in foreign affairs.

If a woman uses the title freelance photographer, it means that she's unemployed. Ditto freelance writer. For men, the equivalant used to be consultant. It is now venture capitalist. A venture capitalist with a camera is a person with an identity crisis.

The title Ms., which was supposed to be the all-purpose title for women, now means an unmarried woman of the middle or upper classes. Miss is an unmarried woman of the lower classes and married women of any class are still Mrs. The title Georgetown hostess means frivolous. Perennial presidential candidate means crazy, fashion arbiter means obsessed with the color red, and, after the bid to take over CONOCO, Canadian means Jewish. (Canadian bacon is therefore an oxymoron.)

For some titles, there is only one person. Fugitive financier, for instance, is only Robert Vesco. The First Lady of the American Theater is Helen Hayes, the First Lady of Dance is Martha Graham and the First Lady of the American Musical Theater is Ethel Merman. There is no First Gentleman of anything, because First Lady, among other things, means too old to work anymore.

Some titles are at the moment vacant. Among them are sex goddess, mad-cap heiress, slugger, war hero, impressario, generalissimo, escape artist, master criminal, toastmaster general, blonde bombshell, Latin lover and aging Latin lover, heavyweight champeen, reclusive billionaire, Broadway columnist, international playboy, aviatrix and, from about 10 at night until 7 in the morning, president of the United States.