In 1976, British cultural philosopher and novelist Raymond Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which analyzed the origins and uses of 110 words that are important to the way we organize concepts about society and politics. Forgotten now by most, Williams was once a key theoretician of the New Left. A random sampling of the words he analyzed suggests how deeply Williams dug into the thought structures that form how we look at a broad range of human phenomena: unemployment, revolution, underprivileged, consumer, alienation, technology, family, genetic, experience capitalism and cover the full range of human experience, including politics, economics, society, culture, the arts, science and religion. Williams focuses on British word uses, but also covers this side of the Atlantic.
Oxford University Press has now republished the updated edition of Keywords that came out in 1983, and it is a treasure for anyone interested in the ideological basis of contemporary culture. While Hip-Hop culture, blockbuster movies, text messaging, social media and digital technology have all contributed copious words and phrases to our cultural vocabulary since the mid-1980s, little has changed in the basic concepts by which we understand society and formulate actions. Far from obsolete, Keywords still lives and breathes the assumptions of capitalism and the consumer society.
Here are a few of the many insights I have culled from reading Keywords:
- Many words with positive associations, like interesting and improve have their origin in financial matters. Interesting derives first from having an interest in land or a business operation and then getting interest on an investment; improve and improvement first applied to land and economics before people started using it generally to denote making something better. As Williams writes, about interesting: “It seems probable that this now central word for attention, attraction and concern is saturated with the experience of a society based on money relationships.” The language certainly underscores my theory that contemporary society reduces all human relations and experiences to buying and selling.
- Consume and consumer originally had a negative connotation, meaning “to take up completely, devour, waste, spend.” A disease of the lungs was even named consumption. American advertising has now transformed consumer into a positive trait. Consumer still focuses on using up something, i.e., what manufacturers produce. We use it positively, as in consumer choice and negatively, as in consumer society. But—to quote Williams, “the predominance of the capitalist model ensured its widespread and often overwhelming extension to such fields as politics, education and health.” For the most part, to consume is now a very good and admirable thing.
- Our current confusion about matters of class reflects the confused origins of the words we use to describe the various classes. Lower class originally referred to the lowest ranking in a hierarchical society in which those above were inherently better humans. Middle class, on the other hand, referred from the beginning of its usage only to economic matters and described those in society with middling incomes—not the wealthy and not the poor. Building on the original meaning of the lower classes as inferior beings, the rightwing constantly uses language that delegitimizes the poor, making them seem undeserving of aid and at fault for their condition. This constant undercutting of the claims for social and economic justice for the lower class helps to form a wedge between the middle and lower classes, and influences many in the middle class to align with the wealthy, who have been picking their pockets for centuries, and certainly during the past 35 years. As Williams shows, the centuries-old strategy of the ruling elite to divide and conquer is baked into the language.
Unfortunately, Keywords has gotten the kind of play in the news media reserved for academic studies that prove that public schools do a better job of educating students than private schools do or provide precise details on how wind energy could provide all of our energy needs. In other words, Williams’ masterpiece has been virtually ignored by the mainstream news media. I routinely read book reviews in the following publications: New York Review of Books, Nation, New Yorker, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, Atlantic, Foreign Affairs and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The only one of these periodicals to review Keywords, and the only reason I know about the book, is Nation magazine. A Google News search revealed that Philosophy Now, The Guardian and Purple Revolver also reviewed Keywords, a paltry number compared to the hundreds of reviews of David McCullough’s latest inspirational biography (of the Wright Brothers) and of David Brooks’ right-wing sociology, The Road to Character to be found online.
Our mass media—controlled by a handful of companies which represent the ruling elite (another word Williams covers)—naturally censor thought that does not jibe with the beliefs of their owners. The mass media allows some dissent, but not much. The media does a lot to keep false notions such as creationism, low-tax policies and deregulation alive in everyone’s minds. Meanwhile, embedded in the structure of the language are the ideological assumptions that keep the ultra-wealthy in control. Keywords is an essential book for understanding the underlying or hidden ideology that dominates the English language and therefore our thought processes.