This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Using historical terms that aren't politically correct now


As someone who's interested in history, I'm interested in learning the names of things. It's true that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", but if you want to learn about roses, you have to start by learning the word "rose", if you see what I mean.

I like doing original research. That is, I dislike history books, or pre-packaged stuff. I take the time to look through old newspapers, vintage books, that sort of thing. And in order to find things there, you have to know what they were called back in the day.

Of course times change. How we use the language changes, what is acceptable in polite society changes. And I'm OK with what is called being "politically correct", which means to show modern respect by avoiding using terms that have become offensive over time. I'm old enough to remember hearing stuff as a kid that no one gave a second thought to, but would now get you a punch in the nose (and you would deserve it) if you used them today. At the very least it would you get rolling eyes from people who wonder if you've been living in a cave. I have some years on me, but I haven't been living in a cave, and I appreciate receiving, and giving, respect.

So I'm learning the modern names that my Native American friends prefer, such as the Akimel O'odham. But you won't find anything in old documents by doing a search for Native American Akimel O'odham - you will have to look for Pima Indians. It's the same way with African-Americans, which you will find in old documents as "Negro". The list goes on and on, and you see what I mean, which is that within an historical context, those terms are acceptable. Throwing them around on social media just because you're out of touch is just ignorant. As you can tell, I feel very strongly about this.

So as a historian I give myself special dispensation to use these terms. When I'm searching through the Library of Congress I'll use terms that I would never use in my ordinary course of life, in ordinary posts on Facebook, that sort of thing. And if you're a time-traveler like me, you understand.


Image at the top of this post: Noted Negro Orator Professor Kelly Miller in Phoenix in 1920.

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