Inclusion or Exclusion By Language

…The time for pedantic purism is past; if we wish to communicate with the larger audience, we must use language they understand. We do not have the luxury of defining our words, their definitions are thrust upon us by usage.

I was struck by how much that sounds like something I might have said about libraries — only more compact and pointed — but it’s actually my father describing his position on an argument at the World History Association annual conference a couple weeks ago.

Later, I’ll probably use his words to shape my long standing theme regarding the language we use. Every field of endeavor field employs specific, perhaps opaque, terms; our challenge is to make knowledge accessible to interested outsiders, not exclusive.

In this case, however, the argument was about how we define periods of history in differing geographic contexts.

…we should give in to popular demand and accept the term “medieval” as a global historical period, not just a European period.

If we think about it, we can come up with a dozen reasons why this argument is wrong, but another moment of thought reveals that there’s really not much alternative. And, for an group that identifies itself as “the foremost organization for the promotion of world history,” would they not be failing in that promotional mission if they isolated themselves by demanding a unique vocabulary?