How do you tell what words mean?

An interview with the academics behind ‘Keywords for Today,’ a book exploring the myriad definitions and contexts behind the most important words of the day.

How do you tell what words mean?

An interview with the academics behind ‘Keywords for Today,’ a book exploring the myriad definitions and contexts behind the most important words of the day.

During the 2019 State of the Union Address, Donald Trump denounced socialism, saying that “America will never be a socialist country.” The camera quickly and unsubtly cut to Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist, as he scowled at Trump. Some politicians stood and applauded Trump’s comments, acknowledging the invocation of “socialist” as it means to members of Trump’s generation: an epithet, and stand-in for “rotten commies.” But socialism simply doesn’t poll the way it used to; for an increasing number of people, “socialist” is a term of pride, rather than condemnation. Trump used it in one way, addressing one demographic; the other, rightfully so, disregarded it as more fancy.

That some words have one meaning to some people and a different meaning to others is, perhaps, obvious to say out loud, but the mutability of definition and context across social groups remains an ongoing tension in American life. This was apparent in 1976, when Welsh academic Raymond Williams included “socialist” in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, a book exploring the complexity of words and their differing meanings. Williams never explicitly defined the term “keyword” — funny, since it was a particular obsession of his — but they comprise words that are popularly used in myriad ways, often evoking some disagreement in meaning.

Keywords was presented as a reference book, with each word accompanied by an essay explaining its various meanings. As opposed to a dictionary, where one is bluntly told what a word means, it championed difference with the hope of inspiring what Williams called “an extra edge of consciousness” required to take part in what he called “the long revolution,” also the title of a book he wrote in 1961. Williams theorized, very correctly, that the race to save culture from the priestly elite would not be accomplished overnight; it would only be a process brought about by an educated and well-read public.

The jury is still out on that, but in 2007, Colin MacCabe, a professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh, founded The Keywords Project. Inspired by Williams’ book, the Project was initially an informal gathering of a dozen or so fellow academics discussing how to update Keywords. These meetings turned into the creation of a website in 2009, and eventually, a revised book titled Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary, which was published in late 2018. Many added keywords can be found on the website, and new words will continue to be published online, but arguably the most important — including “art” and “culture” — are only available in the book version. Within the book, there are extensive essays for each word, some simply the same as Williams’ version with an added “recent developments” section at the end. Most others are fresh additions — “karma” and “privilege,” for example — based on their use in modern English-speaking culture.

As someone who writes everyday in a language in flux, Keywords for Today was a necessary update to my bookshelf. I’ve already referenced it often, where it’s provided me with a historical and linguistic context for words that I’ve often seen and heard, while gesturing toward a hopeful awareness of their ever-changing meanings. The project is ongoing, with updates planned for the website, along with future explorations of keywords in south Asian Englishes. Holly Yanacek, a professor of German at James Madison University, helped MacCabe write, edit, and publish the book, which follows the same methodology and format as Williams’ original. The Outline spoke to both MacCabe and Yanacek about the work, as well as the importance of Williams�� project to better illuminate the way we understand words.

Do you see Keywords for Today as overtly political or addressing specific political concerns like much of Williams’ work?

Holly Yanacek: Oh, I hope so. I think one of the words that was most interesting is “cultural appropriation.” In regards to the keyword “trauma,” you have a shift in meaning from what was once a physical wound to something that is more psychological, kind of difficult to pinpoint. With questions of “identity” and “trauma” there’s often a lot of contestation around questions of who can claim victimhood status, who can claim to be traumatized. One of Williams’s quotes about the Keywords work in general that I really find fitting is that this will add “an extra edge of consciousness,” or a political discourse.

Colin MacCabe: It is political in the sense that it is reflecting on contemporary politics but it’s not political like Raymond’s work was political. Raymond had a fully-fledged political, intellectual project, which was completely outlined and which, if you like, was a non-Leninist communism. In the sense of having a fully worked out political position, Keywords for Today isn’t like Keywords, which does have that. But I suppose the hope would be that it would throw up some ideas towards a new reworked version of The Long Revolution.

I’ve been thinking about how some critics of the Keywords Project could say that it would be easier to just Google a word to find the etymology and/or the meaning.

CM: I don’t want in any way to denigrate online resources nor denigrate people examining for themselves but the greatest of the online resources is the OED [Oxford English Dictionary]. In both Raymond’s book and ours, every entry is a reflection on a disagreement with the OED entry. So the answer to that criticism would be, do the entries take you further or not? I don’t think I’m the person to answer that question. It’s up to people like you.

Raymond’s book is the reading of the OED by a committed socialist in the 1950s in Britain, [with a] working class background, and a hugely literary sensibility. Our reading is much later. It certainly doesn’t have any single individual with that coherent of a reading, but it has a whole range of individuals with a lot of wider reading in lexicography, in law, in contemporary literary debate. And it’s a question of whether that is something that yields something that is useful to people reading the book. It isn’t a book in that readers are expected to start at A and end at Y. Readers are expected to pick it up and look at a particular word which is puzzling them and see whether they are useful in that context. I very much hope they are.

Are there any words that you wish had been included?

CM: The most important for me were “immigrant” or “migrant.” We really should have done something with those words. When we went to Raymond’s work and took out the words that we took out, the two that I regret now are “labor” and “work.“ There’s no doubt in my mind that one of those has to be in. The current debates about artificial intelligence, the whole way in which new forms of employment are being used, means that we have to have one of those two words in. So I would take immigrant and I think maybe “work” rather than “labor,” but maybe “labor” rather than “work.” I don’t know. I haven’t worked it out. There was also a conference of linguists who looked at this and one of them said, “Well, you’ve got ‘black’ in there, but you need to have ‘white’ as well.”

HY: I agree with “work” or “labor.” I definitely think “migrant” or “immigrant” would be important to include as well. Another that comes to mind is “intelligence” because you have the meaning in different areas: artificial intelligence, emotional intelligence. I haven’t looked at the linguistic history, but it definitely seems like one word worthy of exploring. There’s been a lot of work in critical race studies in whiteness and white fragility, so I think that is only becoming more critical now. Maybe ten years ago “white" was not as interesting or as contested a term, [but] I think what’s going on in academic discourse on race and whiteness would make it especially interesting and important.

Do you mind talking about a few words that I was surprised were omitted? “Society” is one. You included “socialist” in the book and you included “social” on the website, but Williams originally included the term “society.”

CM: The way we did it was we all turned up with 10 words that we wanted in, and 10 words that we wanted out and that was the beginning of it. Society... I think the argument was that it was covered by social.

HY: Williams’s original title is Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. We have “culture” here, but not “society.” I imagine if we could or in another expansion of the book that “society” might be back but the decision was to include culture, especially relating to how it is intensely politicized. I’m thinking of how there have been a number of recent Trump quotations. We looked at all of his Tweets and how he uses certain words, and we discovered that he uses “culture” in a very specific kind of way. He talks about the refugees in Germany and Europe and how they are changing the culture.

So there’s a very static notion of culture that is kind of resistant to change that is the dominant, hegemonic culture. I think that seemed to be the more active word. In regards to “socialist,” I remember a lot of conversations about Bernie Sanders and the perceived interest Democratic Socialism during the previous election. We were making some of our tough editorial decisions in late 2015, early 2016, as things like Trump and Brexit were happening. I think we were actually meeting in Cambridge shortly after the first bad news of Brexit came about. All of these things probably influenced our decisions to some extent.

In his original introduction, Williams wrote that rather than a resolution, we can find that “extra edge of consciousness.” What does that phrase mean for you?

CM: Raymond absolutely didn’t want to tell you what these words mean. He didn’t want to give you the correct answer and say if you’ve got the correct answer, then you simply see what you have to do. I suppose he used the phrase “edge of consciousness” and we used it after him to mean that there was some sense in which a degree of analytic clarity can’t help at the margins to understand the politics and struggles of the time. So I suppose “edge of consciousness” is a way of not saying “correct.”

HY: For me, it means that we constantly reflect upon the words we use and don’t use and perhaps how terms can serve to create environments of inclusivity and who are we excluding or including with certain concepts and what are the political and social biases that are evident in the terms we sometimes take for granted. There is a sense of... I’m not sure Colin would want me to use the term “social justice,” [laughs] but there is a political impulse behind that phrase. Reflect on the use of language, and the cultural and political baggage that terms carry so we can communicate more effectively with each other across social groups and understand how language plays a role in that.

Do you see the Keywords Project and Keywords for Today as a part of Williams’s idea of the long revolution?

CM: Yes, that’s what I would hope it was. The long revolution is Raymond’s single biggest idea. It has had difficulties because he had a fundamental faith in the development of the forms of communication as part of the long revolution, and you could of course now have a much much more pessimistic view.

HY: One of the things I value most about Williams is there is this deep concern for all humanity, but there is this interest in promoting dialogue across social groups. I think that is what really needs to happen to overcome some of the divisions in, especially American, society and culture currently, that we learn how to talk with each other across these divisions and ultimately in the interest of recreating a more equal and just society. I feel like Williams started it and if we can somehow continue that, that would be fantastic.

Now that the book has been published, what’s the future for the Keywords Project?

CM: Well, we haven’t fully decided that because, to be honest, the effort of finishing it nearly killed me. [laughs]