Historians look at texts all the time. We consider images and sounds and spaces to be texts as well, but much of the time, we’re talking about words. To that end, we work to understand the meaning of the text by placing it in historical context. Defining and redefining words is one way of exerting power, and historians are attentive to the way words reflect and also shape historical experiences.
To that end, a few examples from the past 24 hours that illustrate why historians pay such close attention to words.
Today, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), one of 13 white men drafting the Senate’s response to the House’s Obamacare replacement, had this to say to a reporter: “The public wants every dime they can be given,” he said. “Let’s face it, once you get them on the dole, they’ll take every dime they can. We’ve got to find some way of getting things under control or this country and your future is going to be gone.”
Tennessee’s governor signed a bill that requires the words in state law to be interpreted based on their “natural and ordinary” meaning. While the governor denied that this had anything to do with same-sex marriage, conservative groups that campaigned for the law explicitly stated that it was to “to prevent judges from defining references to husband or wife, which appear throughout the Tennessee Code, as the gender-neutral ‘spouse.'”
In each case, politicians used words or worked to control the meaning of words in order to shape the limits of a particular conversation and achieve particular political ends
Hatch positioned “the public” as those in the country who take rather than contribute, jeopardizing “your future” through their greed. In doing so, he was participating in a much longer historical conversation about taxation, freedom, the government’s role in providing public services, and ideas about the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor.
In declaring abortion to be murder, Oklahoma politicians stated that they believe a legal medical procedure is actually the unlawful killing of another person. In doing so, they are participating in a much longer historical conversation about bodily autonomy, particularly that of women, and when a fertilized egg becomes a person with legal rights.
Those supporting “natural” and “ordinary” meanings of words in Tennessee are using words in an attempt to resist a change by explicitly denying that specific words and concepts can change or have complex meanings. In doing so, they are participating in a much longer historical conversation about marriage, gender roles, the place of law in religion, the place of religion in law. Perhaps most importantly, they’re doing the thing that always makes a historian pay attention – they’re claiming something is “natural,” implying that it has an unchangeable meaning that exists outside of human culture and time.
If the meaning of words were natural and ordinary, of course, many disciplines – like history – and jobs – like Supreme Court justice – would barely exist. It’s precisely because the meanings of words change in different contexts and in different historical moments that we have stories like these. This is why historians pay such close attention to words.
When did people in the United States start using “citizen” instead of “subject,” and what did that mean? Did it mean much to them at all? If you asked a member of the general public what a “citizen” was and what a “subject” was, would there be any consensus on the “ordinary” meanings of those words?
What did it mean that common law defined rape as “the carnal knowledge of a woman by force and against her will?” What did it mean that until the late 20th century, state laws defined rape so as to deny the possibility of its existence between people who were married to each other. Our “ordinary” definitions of rape today clearly don’t tell us the whole story.
When the Supreme Court redefined Indian tribes as “domestic dependent nations”, declaring the relationship between tribes and the United States to be like a “ward to its guardian,” what did those words and the relationships they described mean to those involved? Nowadays, most people don’t talk about wards and guardians in everyday speech, so no “ordinary” meanings can help.
You don’t have to know the history of everything you hear about in order to think about it critically and historically. One good way to start is to think about language like this, and to be very wary of people telling you things have unchanging, natural, ordinary meanings. If that were the case, they shouldn’t have to spend all this time telling us so, right?