Dreaming History: word-ing

Some of us are inveterate users of dictionaries: general ones, subject-specific ones, and dictionaries of etymology. Often this is because there are intriguing words that, at first glance, we assume to know. But at a second or third glance, we sense a mistake or some subtlety of meaning that escapes us. Other words have an excess, or trickery, or unsuspected complexity — characteristics that we ignore until the dictionary objects. On occasion, we object back, refusing the dictionary because we have chosen to break a rule or deploy the word in a particular way. But we thank the dictionary for its concern.

Some words lend themselves so tirelessly to metaphor or cliché that we must question the word and our motives for choosing it. In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell warns us against the use of “dying metaphors… which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” The 19th-century French poet and essayist, Gérard de Nerval, was perhaps the most scathing of any writer careless enough to descend into cliché: “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile,” he wrote. But then de Nerval committed suicide, leaving this note for his aunt: “Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white.” And Baudelaire noted that de Nerval had “delivered his soul in the darkest street that he could find.”[1]

Then there are words that we love, often inexplicably, and so we look them up for the pleasure of their company. “Tell me more about yourself,” we say to the word. “I find you fascinating. May I invite you into this sentence I am writing?” I put the word soundings in this category. Also, the word muster. But there are numerous possibilities here and each of us possesses a private list.

Finally, there are words to be re-learned at regular intervals because we struggle to hold our understanding with ease. Reification, even after all those studies of Marxism, is a word that regularly slips from my grasp. Irony is a word I check repeatedly. There has always been something about irony that eludes me, and yet it’s one of the big ones, isn’t it? A word one often needs just to get through the day. Try reading the news without an understanding of irony. It would be painful. Yet whenever I am about to use the word irony in a piece of writing, I find I hold the word, and I hold its basic definition, but they don’t come together in my mind. There is a mismatch that causes my fingers to pause above the keyboard. So, I must look it up, sometimes as far as back to the Greeks.

So, is it ironic that history (both lower- and upper-case H), the word that has shaped my working life, gradually made itself the most important word that I must redefine, over and over? Or maybe this is not ironic at all. For if something matters to us, if it is bound up with our identity, then surely, we ought regularly to confirm, rework, and deepen our understanding of the word attached to that something.

Perhaps I had no business studying History, seeing as how I didn’t bother to look up the word at the beginning. In my defense, I cannot recall a single History teacher insisting on such an exercise. If any did so, it would have been Mr. Beaman, my high school History teacher, the first to draw me to the subject. Mr. Beaman, rest his soul, was a dedicated and serious man for a group of 16-year-olds and I appreciated him greatly. But once I got to university, such basic tasks fell away. For the most part, we made for dense and complex readings without having worked our way to these. And later, to take an example from my own teaching life spent mainly in Cultural Studies departments (and there’s the rub, you might say), how often did I expect my students to be interested in postmodernity without also expecting them to know something of modernity? How could I ask them to assess the claim of ‘lost faith’ in metanarratives without extensive knowledge of what a metanarrative is, what it does, how it came to be a metanarrative, and what might happen if we lose faith in it? Yes, it is true that in examining postmodernity, we necessarily address modernity. It’s all of a wondrous piece. Yet I look back now and feel I cheated those students, as well as the subject of History itself.

It is a human flaw to sink deeper and deeper in the mire until it dawns on us that we don’t know what the mire is. Should I return to teaching now, I would tell my students there is nothing more honest than a blank page and a state of ‘not knowing’. Then, I would propose history as a keyword, and a few other keywords too: archive, memory, narrative, historiography among others. I would ask that they try for their personal definitions first, drawing from life so far, before looking up the words in at least three different sources. If you, dear reader, wish to take leave of me now in order to look up these, or other words of your choosing, I understand.

For those of you still here, let me offer a ‘working definition’ or two. We’ll go with a standard understanding of history as the past and History as the study of the past. The practice of History typically involves the gathering and analysis of source materials, usually to propose/write an explanation of particular historical events and change. Historiography refers to the writing of history, and further to that, the theory and history of that writing and its attendant methodologies.[2]

I’ve long been a believer in working definitions. They are sometimes woefully simple and incomplete, but they allow us to make a start. As we move from our blank page, we acknowledge that our understanding is a work in progress. It remains relatively untroubled, but we know there is trouble to come.

[1] This passage is an excerpt from an earlier post which may be read as a partial ‘defense’ of cliches: see A time of clichés.

[2] This is not the place for a detailed ‘history of History’, but a reliable account can be found in the introductory textbook by Peter Claus & John Marriott, History: An Introduction to Theory, Method and Practice, Routledge (2017). The authors survey the “varieties of History” (political, social, economic, cultural, and more) together with key periods of historiography: Greek and Roman, religious (Christian, Jewish and Islamic), the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, the English and North American traditions, the ‘linguistic turn’, postmodernism and postcolonialism. They recount the differences and debates that emerged during and between these ‘moments’ — all of this capturing something of the complexity that must follow from our ‘working definitions’ here.

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A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/

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A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/

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