WE WERE MEDITATING the other day on the dispute in Maryland over the right of dentists to advertise, when some nagging - you could almost say aching - recollection dragged us back to American Lit 11a. Yes, that was it: "McTeague," the classic turn-of-the-century novel by Frank Norris ("The Octopus," "The Pit") documenting the ruin of literature's most prominent advertising dentist. A quick trip to the library confirmed our impression. Thus: "But for one thing, McTeague would have been perfectly contented. Just outside his window was his signboard - a modest affair - that read: 'Doctor McTeague. Dental Parlors. Gas Given; but that was all. It was his ambition, his dream, to have projecting from that corner window a huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs, something gorgeous and attractive."

Well, McTeague got his wish, but he wish, but he also got a passel of trouble which we won't rehearse here, except to say that part of the trouble was the same kind he'd be in today. You see, Doctor McTeague didn't exactly have a license or a diploma, and he got nabbed. Likewise, those dentists who choose to advertise under newly liberalized laws and rulings in Maryland (and Virginia and the District) are not being invited to lie or mislead concerning their credentials, skills and wares. Maryland Attorney General Francis B. Burch, in informing the state Board of Dental Examiners that it did not have the authority to prevent a particular dentist, Dr. Daniel Lee Maloof, from advertising, made plain that the Board does have authority to regulate false or deceptive advertising. And it also has the authority, according to Mr. Burch, to forbid advertising by unlicensed dentists, such as, for example, old McTeague.

Great Books aside, that is precisely the kind of limitation on professional advertising we think is proper. It is deceptive advertising, not competitive or informative or even gaudy advertising that each profession and its government regulators need to prohibit. There is bound to be plenty of caution in this whole field as state officials move to interpret last spring's Supreme Court ruling allowing lawyers to advertise, and as the elders and muckety-mucks of the various professions themselves set about establishing standards. And we doubt that you will be seeing very many hugh (and gorgeous and attractive) gold molars hanging out of office building windows in the immediate vicinity. Still, we do hope that the potential public benefit is realized: a safe and reasonable competition with a consequent lowering of fees where that is possible, and a better chance for the public to do some informed comparison shopping.