Some observations on the importance of choosing the correct word

I picked up The Structures of Everyday Life some years ago, but only recently settled down for a cover-to-cover read. At about fifty pages in, the bit about discussing the importance of numbers, the ways in which various estimates of world population are fraught but why it’s important to get a sense of the order of magnitude, etc., I was getting into the rhythm.

I do have an impulse for documentation, and feel frustrated that so much of the past has to be hand-wavy: people were here, because archaeology’s happening now. (Okay, slight exaggeration.) So there’s the temptation to think that those extensive times/places are protected by an SEP field—interesting, certainly, and worthy of study, but maybe more the provenance of sister fields.*

But the hand-waving is done by statisticians, who if not less squishy than say, anthropologists, are at least differently squishy. Braudel makes reference to “biological expansion” and by pinging biology—to say nothing of climate change, as a means of explaining worldwide synchronicity of demographic trends—reframes the discussion. “Populations” are qualitatively different from “people.” People have stories; it is sheerest folly to attempt to derive anything about them from mathematical models. People are the provenance of the humanities and the social sciences (but only the squishiest of social sciences, the ones that get laughed at by the natural sciences and never get invited to the cool parties). But populations? Ten or twenty million is a margin of error. And thus strategic word choice helps carry the day.

It also provokes wincing and, worse, skepticism. “Black Africa” is problematic; describing it as “backward” even more so. Sometimes words can kick you out of what you’re reading. That’s a distracting failure of craft in fiction; in a scholarly work, it can introduce doubts about the author’s perspective, bias, and, potentially, thesis. I wondered about translation (though my initial—and rather laudable, if I do say so myself—impulse to check the original was derailed by the twin factors of laziness and the inadequacy of my French) and if the terms were less cringeworthy in the original. I wondered if dismissive terminology indicated a dismissal of the region in general and was perhaps a factor in Braudel lowballing the population estimate compared to other sources. I wondered if I could ignore it, just chalk it up to it being “the times” and/or take heart that by designating other regions “backward” the racial element was mitigated. But ultimately I just reverted to a grain-of-salt approach. Tens of millions, plus or minus, in the worldwide population estimates aren’t significant to Braudel’s argument in the opening section; I am going to be extra mindful of potential erasures (as distinct from a lack of documentation). So, perhaps, it’s just as well that the cringeworthy terminology was employed. Uncritical digestion is not useful.

* This is, of course, a fairly unsatisfactory way to approach talking about the past, even leaving aside the issues of privileging documentation and the segments of society that create and retain it. (Reading Richter and—to a lesser extent, simply due to knowing his academic background—Janzen provides ample illustration of why documentation is not king.) Any broadly inclusive history will be an interdisciplinary undertaking.

I’d been planning to comment on the use of the word “holocaust” in a Fritz Leiber story as a means of dating it: the small letter “h” kicked me right out of the story, but then I assumed it was from early in his career. But no, “The Unholy Grail” was published in the 60s…and now I wonder if use of the term (unhitched from “nuclear” and sans capital) was in fact common in the 60s or if it was considered an odd choice at the time of publication or if it was just a matter of sticking to the correct term for a personal existential crisis. But, while this became a good object lesson in examining one’s assumptions, it remains an example of a word choice that kicked me out of a story.

Shades of Gould and Morton…though Braudel’s not doing anything so straightforward as pouring shot into cranial cavities.