The Magic of Strong Language: Making a History Text a Pleasure to Read

While this blog will often focus on the grammatical and language mistakes I see infecting our world, I’m happy to take a few moments to appreciate the successful use of language. In my Grammar for Writers course we recently discussed the difficulties and stress that can result from attempting to balance interesting prose and vivid language with understanding the needs of an audience. Those of us who study and love language and words may find it frustrating to be forced to choose a simple word for an audience when there is a more difficult, perhaps even slightly obscure, word that encompasses precisely the idea we wish to convey.

Now, I promised you some successful language. I am a history minor and as such, I spend nearly as much time reading historical resources and essays as I do reading literature and rhetoric. Though I use primary materials for research, a great deal of what I read for class are excerpts, essays, and books of historians and academics. Now, while historians have much more training and education than I have, and while a large portion of their jobs involve writing, the language of historical texts tends to place its focus on research and not on language. I was excited, therefore, when this weekend I found an exception as I was reading. This passage is from page 106 of Dr. W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s book The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory.

“To have done so might have enabled political insurgents to use state funds and offices to promote historical narratives that were anathema to the Democratic Party and its supporters. But by 1900, white Democrats had a firm grip on the region’s politics and public institutions. They also had an acute need to establish the legitimacy of their recently secured power, in large part because their hegemony rested on coercion and anti-democratic constitutional manipulations. State historical agencies provided the means to present the southern past in a manner consonant with the needs and goals of this ascendant white elite.”

I appreciate his diction. He uses some solid vocabulary, but nothing so difficult that his meaning is lost. His word choice gives the reader, even from a short section from a rather long book, a good idea of his tone. “Political insurgents” is a strong term; “insurgents” carries with it negative, violent connotations. “Anathema;” I love this word. Anathema, like insurgents, is heavy laden with connotation. A quick Googling brings up definitions that involve words like “loathed,” or “detested.” Anathema is much more specific, not to mention more awesome, than simply saying “narratives disliked by…” I knew what anathema means, but I also Googled it, because, well, Google. Some people may not recall the word anathema from their long distant SAT-Prep days, but I don’t think the meaning would be lost if someone were uncertain, and if they did indeed Google the word, they would see those awesome words like “loathed” that would help them understand why Brundage chose anathema instead of dislike.

Brungage continues his strong language with “firm grip.” These are simple, short words, but they form a strong image, one of a clenched fist. “Acute” is a sharp word, forgive my bad pun, closely followed by “hegemony.” Hegemony, like anathema, is a perhaps-no-so-well-known word that draws strong connotations. Definitions of hegemony include terms like domination and imperial control. “Coercion” rests just two words after hegemony with obvious connotative meaning, and “anti-democratic constitutional manipulation” is a grim accusation in American culture. “Consonant” is so much more interesting a word than consistent, and “ascendant white elite” closes off this selection, leaving the reader with a strong image of this group and their role in shaping the historical narratives of their time.

I look forward to reading Brundage because, while his research is thorough and his analysis thoughtful, I also appreciate his use of precise and expressive language. It is not often that I can consume the information necessary to my historical research while also appreciating style and language usually reserved by my English and Literature studies. The selection from Brundage points out the power in the ability to use good language and interesting prose in any genre of writing.

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One thought on “The Magic of Strong Language: Making a History Text a Pleasure to Read

  1. I enjoyed your blog on literature and history and how words can impact the readers understanding of a word. I really think it depends on the audience because as students we are always being challenged to have a better understanding of language and its usage. However, I have encountered in my internship that I have to consider the culture and audience. The longer more difficult words are not included in the in-house newsletter, but in the documentation for physicians, it is totally different.
    Personally, I prefer the vivid language that describes and paints a picture for the audience. Whether language is used in academic literature, or it is geared for a specific culture, it can impact the audience.

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