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  • Political Vocabularies: Word Change and the Nature of Politics by Conal Condren
  • Doreen Alvarez Saar
Conal Condren. Political Vocabularies: Word Change and the Nature of Politics. Rochester, NY and Suffolk: U of Rochester P and Boydell & Brewer. 200 p.

As a scholar of early American literature, I am deeply interested in political language because politics influences, to some degree, all of the texts produced in America in the tumultuous eighteenth century. Thus, I chose to review Political Vocabularies because I hoped the work would touch on my questions about the nature and development of eighteenth century political language. Although many of my questions were not addressed, I found the book fascinating. The author describes Political Vocabularies as "a general description of the mechanisms by which political vocabularies are formed and transformed in use and from which the very idea of the political is shaped." It is part of a particular school of intellectual history, the "contextualist empirical school" identified by Richard Devetak in Critical International Theory: An Intellectual History, which "treats the theoretical acts of abstraction themselves as objects of empirical historical investigation." That is, Condren and his work explore the very framework—the words—on which academics have been building explanations through empirical examination.

Political Vocabularies makes readers face the uncomfortable idea that the universalizing operation upon which we build our theories may, in fact, be somewhat in error. Even such primary concepts as "power" in a political sense--especially when applied outside of the most contemporary of uses--may itself create the phenomena which the structuring word purports to discover. Although I can't do complete justice to its intricate argument, one of the simple, nonpolitical examples may make the point. Our reliance upon the idea that the spectrum of colors through which we identify the world is not cognate with that of other cultures. According to Condren, the Japanese word awo may mean blue or green, the Tiwi (an aboriginal Australian language) changes the words for color depending upon the object described. Further, the cultural associations with color vary from culture to culture. This example perhaps illustrates the difference in [End Page 199] Condren's approach: one may use the nugget of information to advance another argument but be unable to do justice to the particularities on which s/he builds the case (for example, my knowledge of Australian indigenous language is extremely limited).

This most recent work in Condren's decades-long examination of the relationship between political language and its specific setting is the product of his objection to the way "otherwise fastidious historians rely unreflectively on a contemporary political vocabulary when purporting to describe previous societies in which it was conspicuously absent." Our way of approaching our definitions of the political based on our contemporary understanding does violence to our comprehension of the historical process and essentially sets up a mirror in which we merely see our own reflection. While this concept is easy to express in this very bald way, showing its truth relies on a precise and empirical study. After a three-chapter explanation of the intention of the work, seven chapters look at the ways in which meaning migrated: extension and salience; neologism; euphemism (one on symptom and taboo; the second on accusation and re-description); loanwords and translation; metaphorical incursion and migration; and metaphorical imposition and entanglement.

The wide-ranging discussion offers some delightful moments of insight. For example, political discourse has two opposing ways in which neologisms function depending upon whose ox is being gored. The aversion to change creates new words that define the object as negative, such as anabaptist. Sometimes these labels became badges of honor for the group labeled, such as leveler. On the other hand, when the object has progress as its hallmark, the new word becomes a point of self-promotion and group identity. Condren's dissection of the development of populist and populism has uses that "criticize the popular without sacrificing the overt commitment to the democratic." Further, he argues that these neologisms: "Help create a misleading or nonexistent entity--abstract nouns from partial qualifiers," and do not constitute an ideology, but a political style (78-9). I have not mentioned...


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