Historians Being Mean: A Glossary

Last night, while I was prepping for the seminar I teach on historiography, I realized that one of the reasons we teach historiography is to give students a basic vocabulary with which to critique historical research and writing.

There are instances in which the correct word matters, not the OK word or the more or less descriptive word.

(This, of course, is coming from the woman who, as a four year old, asked her mom if she could postpone her nap because she wasn't tired at the moment.  I used the perfectly appropriate word and got out of my nap.  Life lesson learned.  Check.)

In no particular order, then, here are a few of the most commonly used words historians sling at each other and what they mean.  Followed by what they really mean:

Unsubstantiated. Obvious and unequivocal, this means you just don't have the evidence to make the claim.  You rarely see the "unsubstantiated argument" in print as a response to an entire article or text, because it's the baseline for the profession and most research that can't pass muster on the whole 'evidence' thing doesn't get published. If seen, it is usually applied to one aspect of the research, sometimes because the reviewer can't think of anything else to criticize. More likely to be heard at conferences, occasionally seen in print records of scholarly roundtables.  In which case it means, "I just don't like you at all and I don't care who knows it" or "You are getting way too close to my research topic." Implied insult: You didn't do your homework.  (Alternate reading: Your sweeping, elegiac study kind of blows my mind, so instead of feeling unworthy of you, I'll just hang out over here and quibble over details in this one subsection of this one chapter, OK?)

Anachronistic. The normal-people definition of anachronistic is a chronological misplacement or inconsistency.  It's the employee at the historic site attired in 18th century garb with paisley Doc Martins peaking out from underneath her petticoat and apron.  When historians use it, they tend to mean that you are plucking a contemporary, commonly shared value or sensibility and superimposing it on historical actors.  Implied insult: You have no historical imagination.

Additive. Historians need researchers who plug away at the sources, contribute case studies that anchor larger arguments, find subtle or slight geographic/regional differences in previously published findings and otherwise shore up others' more creative and ground-breaking research"Additive" can be a bit of a back-handed compliment -- a genuine affirmation of the labor with a twist of  condescension: "Nice work, Skipper, if this is the best you can do."

Overdetermined. In layman's terms, this means that an argument about cause or motivation attributes way too much significance to one criterion or set of criteria amongst a much larger pool of possible causes or motivations. The interpretation doesn't leave enough room for alternate readings. This critique can be lodged in a few different circumstances and can be related either to the argument itself or to the person presenting the argument. Sometimes it is just a fancy way of saying, "Hey there, you're right on the verge of manipulating your sources to your own dastardly ends." Also, scholars opposed to the ideologies espoused explicitly by an author or implied in the context of the historical work may use overdetermination as a stand-in for "interested." (See below.)  Implied insult: Your interpretation is about as subtle as two dogs sniffing each other's nether regions.

Lost in the Structure/Agency Corn Maze.  Anyone writing about what people did and why people did what they did, especially if they happen to occupy subaltern status vis á vis a dominant power structure, has to grapple with the whole agency thing. To what extent do individual actors and groups exert personal and collective choice propelling them to act or not act, to speak, to be silent, etc?  And to what extent do the forces that structure their society influence and shape the boundaries of what is possible?  (Marx's superstructure, Bourdieu's field, etc.) It is easy to get lost in this maze and critics are unfortunately somewhere looking down watching you bounce off dried husks.  Implied Insult: Seriously, who really cares about what ordinary people did or why?
*Special thanks to Lara Kelland, who cares deeply about ordinary people who create social change, for this one.

Methods-Fetishistic. This basically red-flags an obsessive fascination with methods or methodology, a blind or perhaps naïve faith in methodology as the key to unveiling hitherto opaque historical truths. Historians who rely on quantitative, computational, data-mining methodologies fall under this scrutiny on the grounds that statistics don't speak for themselves.  Implied insult: Got analysis?

Essentialist/Essentializing.  Basically, an essentialist argument applies an indispensable set of characteristics to any group of people, set of events or places or things.  Over generalization but more than that - it often but not always involves negative judgment.  All Irish people are alcoholic-soaked pugilists. All middle class women whose primary work is in the home in the 1950s were sexually repressed.  It projects the characteristics of a few onto an entire group.   Making data/evidence about a small number of historical actors apply to the whole.  Treating as representative the actions, performance, rhetoric of a few.  Implying connections between actions and subject positions without a lot of evidence.  Implied insult: The trees aren't the forest, sweetie. And btw, there are a LOT of shades of green.

Teleological.  A teleological argument ignores contingencies that make historical change happen and basically suggest a certain inevitability of events. It is the classic "all roads led to here" argument.  Basically, a teleological argument looks at the present scenario and structures evidence about the past in such a way as to explain smoothly and coherently how A led to Z.  And occasionally you might get really lucky and be get told that you are "reifying a teleology." Historical scholarship as means to end. Implied insult: Go back to grad school, Marxist.

Interested/Present-minded.  These are teleological's pesky little brothers. It is a somewhat less harsh way of saying much the same thing.  You are hereby convicted of reading the past through a set of political, social or cultural interests and commitments or are looking at present circumstances and making assumptions about how historical actors might have responded to the same kinds of circumstances or how historical processes might have operated, etc.  Plus, you aren't even badass enough for me to throw teleology at you.  Implied insult: Go to American Studies or Performance Studies or somewhere, you contemporary person, you.  You don't belong here.

Whiggish. Present-Minded + Pollyanna.  Herbert Butterfield published  The Whig Interpretation of History in 1931. "The Whig interpretation of history," he said, was "the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present."  Things are always getting better. Progress is inevitable.  History is a straight line towards awesome. Implied insult: If you love the system so much, maybe you should have just gone to business school. 

Jargony.  Historians pride themselves on their elegant and accessible narrative.  If you throw in more than one or two words that make it sound like you read a lot of Foucault, you will get pinged.  Why use hegemony when you can use power?  Why use phenomenological when you can just say the experience of what happens?  Historians cringe at the language choices many in the academy are drawn towards for their specificity and their subtlety.  Words to avoid include alterity, hybridity, semiotics, subaltern, parrhesia, affect, discursive, among others.  If your mom wouldn't use it in a sentence (and your mom's not a feminist scholar) avoid it.  Implied insult Did you get lost on the way to the Anthopology department?

**Note that this is a work in progress.  Leave suggestions in comments, please! I'll add them.


  1. Great! How about revisionist? Polemical? "Jargon-y" or something along those lines?

    1. Jenna, These are awesome suggestions --- I guess I have some editing to do! Thank you!


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