“Enslaved People”

It has become common, if not mandatory, in just the last few years, to refer to American slaves as “enslaved people“, instead of as slaves. I speculated that this tendency was related to that which favors calling people in various groups “people” with an adjective, rather than a noun, such as Jewish people, instead of Jews (a practice I understand, and generally follow; though I notice that Jews have no trouble calling themselves Jews, rather than “Jewish people”). But an historian friend told me, no, it’s because there is always somebody enslaving them.

This seems fine if you’re writing propaganda, and want to point the finger of blame at somebody; but for the vast majority of American slaves, it’s not historically accurate. An enslaved person is a person who has been enslaved: that is, reduced from a state of freedom to a state of slavery. Capt. John Smith, when he was a slave in Turkey, was an enslaved person. A slave in Georgia in 1858 was almost certainly born into hereditary slavery, not enslaved. To call him or her “an enslaved person” is no more accurate than calling the Duke of Kent “an ennobled person”.

The sad fact is that in many American States before 1865, hereditary chattel slavery was a system. The whole point behind a system is to remove the need for individual agency, and, thus, individual culpability. It’s like our debt-collection system today. The lawyer who sues you for debt is just serving his client: he has nothing personal against you. The judge who enters judgment against you is just following the law. The sheriff who distrains your goods or evicts you from your apartment is just obeying the judge’s order. There was nobody enslaving a child born into slavery, any more than there’s a person ennobling a child born into the English nobility. Frederic Douglass was not enslaved. He was born a slave, and then he was enfranchised.

If we want to blame somebody for poverty, we can call the poor “impoverished people“, and it’s certainly true that there are millions of people actively engaged in supporting the system that keeps the poor in that condition; but if we are dispassionate and honest, few or none of those people have any individual agency in the matter. If they gave their money away, or if they paid their workers the full value of their product, it wouldn’t do away with poverty: it would simply make those rich people poor. You can’t abolish poverty through charity, and poor people are impoverished only if they were reduced from plenty to poverty. It’s the same with slaves.

If individual slaveholders freed their slaves (as in fact many did), the system scarcely registered the fact. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t enslaving anybody, even if he bought a slave now and then. (I don’t think he did, but he may have.) Those unfortunate people were born slaves. They were not enslaved people. Before 1808 (and for some time thereafter, I assume), there were indeed enslaved people in America, thanks to the African slave trade. (So it’s possible that Jefferson, if he indeed bought a slave, bought an enslaved person, and not somebody born into slavery.) That terrible trade compelled the enslavement of millions of free Africans, and it’s entirely proper to refer to those as enslaved people. But the vast majority of American slaves were born into slavery, here, and we should not refer to them generically as “enslaved people”.

It’s currently de rigeur to defer to black politicians and academics in every possible way, which is the cheap and easy way for us white folks to avoid treating black folks with real equality and respect, so that we don’t have to change our hearts and our institutions to match our rhetoric. Here in the South, there’s been a perfect orgy of name-changing and monument-removal (some of which I heartily support, some of which I don’t), but it only hardens the racial lines between Southerners, and it does nothing to get black men out of prison. That’s all I’ll say about that here.

Making every statement a question?

I’ve been taking a course over the web, and the instructor (actually, instructress, but we’re supposed to use the masculine form, even for women) ends almost every sentence with a vocal question mark; that is, her voice goes up at the end of almost every sentence, as if she were asking a question, even if she’s making a statement. I’ve noticed this tendency among a lot of younger people, especially students and college professors, and, for some reason, more in women than in men. (And among women the question mark is frequently associated with a frying of the voice, which I think is a separate, but related phenomenon, to be discussed another time.) It seems to be the standard mode of speech these days in academia.

I think this habit, although it might seem deferential, actually expresses narcissism.

Now, a feature of Southern speech that I love is found among ladies at the beauty parlor (for instance), where one lady telling a story will end every sentence with a vocal question mark and a pause, and her interlocutor (i.e., interlocutress) will say, “Uh-huuunh?” just as a kind of encouragement, so that the conversation takes on the quality of a call-and-response dialogue, with a sort of mutual stroking, which I find very sweet, and typical of the way Southern people soothe one another and take care of one another emotionally. That’s not, I think, what is going on with academics.

I think academics (students and professors) are unconsciously expressing the idea that, if the hearers disagree, the speaker’s feelings will be hurt. They’re sort of daring the hearer to disagree, or adding to the emotional cost of disagreement. In other words, it’s a subconscious way of discouraging disagreement. That seems to me to be the opposite of what should be going on in academia.

“Spike”

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The recent increase in COVID-19 cases has occasioned a corresponding increase in use of the word spike in headlines and news reports.

This is an actual spike.

It bears mentioning that not every increase is a spike. A spike is a thin pointy thing. A metaphorical spike is a rapid increase, followed by a rapid decrease, so that a graph of whatever it is shows what looks like a spike. If the number of cases of the Virus doesn’t come down as quickly as it rose, we don’t have a spike.

This is a statistical spike.

“Monolith”

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A metal object has been found in the Utah desert that looks like the monoliths in “2001: a Space Odyssey”, and the media are universally calling it a “monolith”. That’s understandable, given its resemblance to the (apparently) stone artifacts in the movie, which were, and have ever since been, called “monoliths”; but it’s wrong. A monolith is a single stone, from the Greek monos, single, and lithos, stone. An object made of metal can’t be a monolith. I don’t know what the Greek would be for “single piece of metal”, but maybe this thing should be called an artifact.

The Newspaper of Record

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When she finally came into her powers, Mitchell would interrogate a question no less ambitious than what it meant to live freely as a human unbound by the demands of tradition and convention — whether as a woman seeking sexual and professional equanimity in a man’s world; an artist expressing her true self in a trend-crazed and increasingly corporate music industry; or a child of nature worried that modernity was taking us too far from the garden.

Lindsay Zoladz, New Joni Mitchell Collection Captures Her Early Career Transformation New York Times, 29 October 2020

She interrogates a question? She seeks sexual and professional equanimity? Doesn’t the writer have a dictionary?