Dead people’s stuff

Brodie Waddell

What do historians study? Do we study historical events and past societies through analysis of extant artefacts? Or do we study dead people by looking at their stuff? Tim Hitchcock argues that we do the latter:

In recent years I find myself using the terms Stuff and Dead People in talks and titles more and more.  And as a historian I find myself conceptualising my work as being about Stuff inherited from Dead People.  Both expressions just sound right. … They form an attempt to de-centre the language of historical and social science authority that underpins the professional claims of academic historians as a whole.  By refusing to use the categories and languages of authority we inherited, I am self-consciously rejecting the systems that underpin the professional academic practise of history.

It’s worth reading the whole post, if only for his astute remarks about Kissinger’s questionable place amongst the living, but I want to emphasize an overlapping issue: jargon-busting.

In my reading, Tim is, amongst other things, arguing that historians should think critically about the strange dialects adopted by our scholarly tribes. Rather than relying on traditional technical labels or snazzy new terms borrowed from other fields, we should try to find alternatives.

Tillicoultry churchyard

Dead people

More importantly, to my mind, his specific suggestions are not latinate neologisms invented to bemuse colleagues and confuse students (e.g. Derrida’s différance). They are deliberately common English words: the sort of words that can be found both in the KJB and in a 21st-century pub chatter. This has at least two key advantages over the Derridean approach.

First, as Tim implies, using words that seem blunt or imprecise can force us to think differently about what it is we are actually trying to label. ‘Stuff’ is much less specific than ‘text’, ‘image’, ‘object’ or ‘landscape’, but that is exactly the point: we don’t study each of those things in isolation any more. I can see how this technique might be useful in my own research. Whilst investigating the economic situation in the 1690s, I’ve come to the conclusion these were simply ‘hard times’. This phrase neatly includes all of the economic problems of this decade – increasing fiscal demands, war-time trade disruption, liquidity crisis, food price inflation, etc. – and, at the same time, reminds us that many people experienced these problems as a general calamity, not as separate challenges to be dealt with independently.

Dead people - Collier_-_Vanitas_-_Still_Life


Second, using words like these has the advantage of making us much more understandable. ‘Dead people’ is a phrase that makes sense to everyone, whereas terms such as ‘historical actors’ or ‘active historical agents’ are not quite as obvious. Historians seem to be less intoxicated by technical jargon than many of our fellow academics.1 Nonetheless, there is still plenty of needlessly abstract, obscure vocabulary that could be profitably chucked. Replacing some of our quasi-scientific jargon words with more ‘vulgar’ alternatives would make it much easier to have the sort of fruitful conversations with non-academics that we all claim to want.

These two potential benefits – challenging outdated thinking habits and opening up scholarly discussions – seem to me to be reason enough consider how you might be able to do this in your own work. Perhaps the study of ‘dead people’s stuff’ won’t catch on, but it’s a great excuse to think hard about the words we use.


1 One need only dip into a typical book of literary criticism or sociology to realise that it would have been much more difficult for Sokal to persuade a historical journal to publish his balderdash than it was for him to convince Social Text.

22 thoughts on “Dead people’s stuff

  1. I’m entirely onside with both Tim and you, to a certain point. Jargon-busting is entirely admirable, and I’ve always believed that if you cannot explain the gist of something to a (relatively sober) stranger in a pub or elsewhere in public life, then you’re functionally unable to explain that thing. However, there are obviously different layers of explanation demanded by different audiences, and so one can easily see how specific, and very academic, languages emerged to short-hand ‘stuff’ that everyone in the room knows about. It’s also instructive to me that difference audiences want different amounts of explanation. Historians will want to know as often about the sources, methods, and yes theories or assumptions involved in a piece of history as they will about the dead people, even though dead people are our most important concern at the end of the day.

    The risk of eliding those concerns is two-fold: we call ourselves professionals because we are able to get all of these competing strands into a useful dialogue, because we can apply a range of skills, theories and methods to our subjects. Ditching that in situ essentially hides the sausage-making of history from the reader, which may well be a bad thing. Moreover, sometimes a term like ‘typology’ or ‘discursive’ or ‘engendered (ha!)’ is by far the most precise word for the task. They should be used in those situations.

    Personally I think the happy medium involves a ‘turn’ (oh god) towards human-centric language, languages of action and doing, which foreground what and why various dead-people thought and felt and did various things at various times. Maybe historians need to stutter-step in the direction of prose and fiction, to better understand how to communicate the urgency and craziness of the human past.

    • Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Dave.

      Of course I agree that there are ‘different layers of explanation demanded by different audiences’ and I am not suggesting that we should try to limit ourselves to the 850 words in Ogden’s Basic English. There is nothing wrong with using technical words when we need to describe technical things.

      However, I’m not convinced that using ‘plain English’ limits us to talking about ‘dead people’ and their ‘stuff’ (i.e. narrative and description) at the expense of talking about sources, methods, theories or assumptions. After all, we (or at least I) regularly try to explain these things to first-year students without resorting to terms like ‘normative [sources]’, ‘semiological [methods]’, ‘structuralist [theories]’, ‘functionalist [assumptions]’, or, for that matter, ‘typology’, ‘discursive’ or ‘engendered’. Again, I’m not claiming that we should never use such terms. I’m merely saying that it can be productive to think about other ways of talking about these things. In terms of sources, for instance, a phrase that we sometimes use is ‘reading against the grain’. This, I think, is a brilliant example of a very powerful idea being expressed in a very simple, understandable analogy. You don’t need to be an academic (or a trained carpenter) to get the gist of ‘against the grain’.

      This brings me to your final point: fiction. I’m with you entirely on this point, although ‘human-centric language’ is probably not the word I would use to describe it. I think historians can learn a hell of a lot about how to write effectively by reading good fiction. As you say, creative writers are often much better at conveying ‘the urgency and craziness of the past’ than we are.

    • Thanks for the original post, Tim. As I say, I’ve long thought experimenting with ‘non-academic’ language could be very intellectually fruitful, but it never occurred to me to develop that until I saw your post.

  2. From Christopher Thompson via email:

    May I begin by saying how much I enjoyed this post. It along with Tim Hitchcock’s observations raise very important issues about how historians investigate the past and about the language used to describe their findings to lay and professional audiences.

    I do, however, find myself in fundamental disagreement with the arguments to be found in both places. When I was a postgraduate, I recall being told that one should study the surviving artefacts and documents of the past intensively until they spoke to you. (This may have been one of G.R.Elton’s observations.) But, over the years, I have come to reject this advice. The art and architecture of the past, its cultural artefacts, its literature and written records are not simply the “stuff” of “the dead”: they still speak to us and historians speak to them. We are engaged in a continuing dialogue with the people of the past: it evolves as our understanding of their lives grows. When I go to the British Library or the Bodleian Library or the C.U.L. or The National Archives or any one of the County Record Offices, I am going to places where the dead still live and where I can question them again. It would be superfluous to go into the are philosophers call “speech acts” but it is relevant to the work of historians.

    The second major point I should like to make is that the claims made by other disciplines – by sociology or anthropology, for example – to offer insights into the past are much less successful than their practitioners recognise. Their technical language, indeed, their jargon, often disguises their limitations. Simon Healy once said to me that new insights into the past require detailed knowledge of its sources: I agree with him. Historians like Mattingly and Trevor-Roper and, more recently, John Adamson have the enviable literary skill of making themselves intelligible to academic historians and lay readers alike. How many sociologists or anthropologists do? They will remain water-carriers for historians seriously engaged with studying the past.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Christopher. I’ll leave aside the first point for the moment to focus on the second.

      I’m with you in finding that in many non-historians’ discussions of history ‘their technical language, indeed, their jargon, often disguises their limitations’. You gave a great example by email:

      concepts like REVOG or REVON or REVOV used in relation to the events of the 1640s by historical sociologists

      I’d never heard of these but doing a quick search of googlebooks turned up Mark Gould’s Revolution in the Development of Capitalism: The Coming of the English Revolution (1987), which includes a list of ‘Abbreviations Used in Text’ that beautifully illustrates the ways in which academic jargon can obscure and dehumanise the past rather than illuminating it.

      As usual, there are caveats: I’ve certainly read plenty of work by non-historians that I’ve found useful for thinking about the past. To give specific examples, I’ve found that Benjamin’s well-known Theses on the Philosophy of History and Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life are ‘good to think with’.

      Still, I think that the eagerness of some historians to prove their scientific credentials leads them to import ridiculous terms and concepts from other disciplines, weakening their writing and sometimes insulting the humanity of the ‘dead people’ that they are trying to understand.

  3. I think I am with David Hitchcock on this one (though also sympathetic to Brodie’s and Tim’s points). I can still remember the excitement, which I particularly associate with the early stages of graduate study, of reading some historians’ writings which achieved a particular lucidity and precision – or so it seemed to me – because of the specific phrases they used to define their ideas. I subscribe to the idea that historians and other scholars should be able, and should regularly be challenged, to explain their work to non-academic audiences, but perhaps it is worth remembering (as my engineer brother has often reminded me) that ‘jargon’ only means unnecessary technical language, i.e. language which gets in the way of understanding. I like the idea of using deliberately ordinary language to force us to think both about the humanity of the historical people we study, the way we study them, and the languages we use to describe them. But I think we have to be careful not to lose the precision that unusual words can give us.

    • Glad to hear you are at least partly on board, Richard. I think we’re mostly in agreement. As I say in the response to Dave, I’m not against using technical terms when they are needed. Precision is often very important. The question is determining when they are needed and when they are not.

      I’d be interested to hear more about the historical writing that you’ve encountered that has impressed you with its precision. Upon reflection, I’m sure I’ve encountered such writing too, but I can’t recall specific examples at the moment.

      • Sadly, specific examples elude me at the moment. I may trawl back through my readings in the early days of the Ph.D. (many of which I have printed off and stuffed into almost-unclosable folders) if I can ever find the time!

        I think you have a point (in the comment below – isn’t this getting complicated…) about deliberate bluntness on occasion. There is also something of a dilemma with using attention-catching words, though that’s not quite the same thing. There are many, many articles written on ‘pirates’, for example – though I have myself recently jumped on this bandwagon, so I can’t be too critical! Is it worth being evocative at the cost of some precision? Ideally it’s best to be both, but I am not sure that’s always possible.

  4. It seems like there’s something of a consensus emerging here. I wouldn’t for a moment claim to be an especially low scorer on the Gunning Fog Index (, but I do think (following sound renaissance humanist principles) that we have a duty to write well: elegance, clarity and economy in perfect equilibrium (oh dear, I could have said balance there…). I agree that it’s something that distinguishes academic history from a lot of other disciplines, and links in with the oft-remarked-upon difficult relationship historians have with ‘theory’ (that’s another post, surely). But not all ‘jargon’ is unnecessary. In religious history especially, you need to know your pyx from your pax, and your apse from your elbow. Without some of these terms, reformation history could conceivably turn into an episode of Blackadder. You might end up with ‘the big crossy Jesusy thing in the slopey bit between the big plain space at the back of the building and the small fancy bit at the front’, instead of the rood, which I don’t think would be in anybody’s best interests…

    • Yes, nice to see something approaching consensus about the value of striving for clarity and economy in writing, though in a way that a bit like saying that we all support motherhood and apple pie. I guess I’d want to push it a bit further and reiterate my paraphrase of Tim’s original point: sometimes it is useful to use words that might seem blunt or unsophisticated in order to better reflect the imprecise nature of the thing we are trying to describe – hence, ‘dead people’, ‘stuff’ and ‘hard times’.

      Also, thanks for the link to the Gunning Fog Index. It’s a very crude tool, but it produces some interesting results when you play around with it.

  5. Thanks to everyone here for the reflective responses. I’m furiously marking exams right now, but will reply properly next week. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear if anyone has any more specific examples of words that might be regarded as jargon to a layperson but are essential for discussing your research. Historical objects like ‘pyx’ and ‘apse’ are obvious, but what about concepts or processes or categories?

    • Jargon for me is all about confessional identities, it would be hard to think about the process of religious change without: evangelical, reformed, Reformed, presbyterian, puritan, laudian, prayer-book protestant, country divinity, anglican, conformist, dissenter, cold-statute protestant, and my personal favourite, avant-garde conformist.

      When I am trying to get students to see the differences I often resort to drawing a ‘spectrum’ on the whiteboard, with Roman Catholicism at one end and dissenters at the other, and everything else inbetween. I think it helps them to grasp the underlying principles, but of course I have to point out to them that a spectrum is a very crude tool, and it not only homogenises religious identities in a rather unsatisfactory way, it also masks the highly contested nature of some of these terms…

      • Good points, Laura. Clearly, when discussing religious conflict and theological change those ‘jargony’ words are sometimes essential. As always, however, I’m willing to play devil’s advocate for a moment…

        First, frankly, I’m not sure all of those words especially helpful – even for historians of early modern religion. If one needs to spend five minutes explaining the term before using it (e.g. ‘cold statute protestant’, which, despite publishing an article on Elizabethan and Jacobean religious culture, I’d never heard before) , perhaps it isn’t fit for purpose. There would be real advantages to sticking to well-known terms like ‘puritan’ and ‘laudian’ whilst avoided some of the more obscure.

        Relatedly, I think these words actually illustrate my point about the potential value of ‘crude’ terminology. The very fact that we use so many different words to refer to early modern Protestantism may artificially heighten the appearance of conflict and contrast whilst obscuring points of agreement and consensus. My own impression is that, despite all the public arguments, most people, most of the time, referred to themselves and their neighbours simply as ‘Protestants’ or even merely ‘Christians’. That’s not to say we should never use the word ‘presbyterian’ again: just that sometimes being less precise could actually illuminate another facet of early modern society.

  6. Thank you for such a wonderful discussion here. I am a literary scholar working in the period 1660-1730 and just toying with some title ideas for an essay on the novelist Eliza Haywood’s novella, Fantomina (1725) about a heroine who seduces the same man multiple times in different disguises before she is caught by pregnancy and then sent to a convent.

    So…do I use the academic jargon, something like “Fantomina’s Autoerotic Self-Fashioning,” which seems to capture the thesis or something more popular, like “Fantomina’s Wardrobe Malfunction”? I’m leaning towards something that might include both. But interesting that you should post this right at the moment when I am having this sort of debate with myself.

    • Thanks for your comment, Laura. Actually this raises an important issue – which Mark also raises below – about the distinctiveness of titles. This might be a topic for another thread, but I do think there is a lot to be said for using ‘everyday’ language in titles where possible, even if one needs to regularly use technical language in the main text. There’s a lot to be said for the old ‘does what it says on the tin’ approach to titling publications – though it is one I don’t always follow.

      • A great discussion this. The ‘on the tin’ approach for titles (or the ‘Ronseal’ approach, as Brits know it) is certainly one I subscribe to, hence my book was just ‘Angels and Belief’. Of course these days the language you use also needs to take into account search engines and bibliographic databases – general terms have the advantage of making your book as ‘searchable’ as possible.

  7. I have a similar dilemma to lauraleighlinker, and a specific example to answer Brodie’s call – should I use the term ‘sociability’ in the title of my book? It is currently being billed as ‘Alehouses and Sociability in Seventeenth-Century England’. This has the advantage of nicely capturing what the book is about – in part it is about the alehouse as an institution (it’s prevalence, it’s functions, it’s legal status), but the primary focus is on the sociable activity that took place within alehouses, and what this can tell us about seventeenth-century society and culture. But is ‘sociability’ the best word to capture this latter strand? It is not really a term in common usage (it doesn’t turn up in the King James, nor very often in 21st-century pub chatter…) and I worry that it is an unnecessarily pretentious way of saying ‘people getting together’ that may put off any potential non-academic audience for the book.

    So, what would be a suitable alternative? Alehouses and Drinking? Alehouses and Going For a Pint in Seventeenth-Century England? Any better suggestions are most welcome! But the thing is, for all that it may seem a bit ‘jargony’, I rather like sociability: a key argument of my book is that historians need to take the choices people make about who to socialise with, and the behavioural expectations associated with socialising, much more seriously than they usually do. And in that quest to convince my fellow academics that the history of drinking is not a frivolous subject, it seems better to me to use a more technical term – sociability – to describe my interests, than to use a the more commonplace language of ‘drinking’ or ‘drinking culture’ that immediately brings a snigger from many of my colleagues.

    I guess my point is this: sometimes adopting the language of social sciences is a necessary way of convincing fellow academic historians that a new topic that has often been dismissed as trivial is in fact an important object of study. That may mean losing some lay readers, but it is not always possible to simply throw out the technical language if the legitimacy of your topic within academia is still questioned.

    • Ah yes, the ‘snigger factor’. You’re right that there is a danger of being pushed to the margins of the academic conversation if your topic/language seems ‘too popular’. Personally, I’d still be inclined to avoid ‘sociability’ in a title in favour of ‘drinking culture’ or ‘good fellowship’, but I completely understand your worries.

      In my case, I think I actually had the opposite problem. I could have titled my book ‘Later Stuart Economic Culture’ and that would have been perfectly accurate, but the term ‘economic culture’ comes across as dry and abstract. Thus, I decided to use words that were much more direct and concrete (‘God, duty and community …’) which, to my mind, made the title even more accurate (because those are the foci of my three big chapters) and much more understandable to students and laypeople. So far, I haven’t regretted it.

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