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Words, Aug. 27



Curious why an Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture entry on a certain university failed to mention recent well-publicized disorder, I wrote the editor, Guy Lancaster. He replied:

“While events such as raids on compounds and deaths clearly need to be added immediately, with others we do wait a bit. One thing I want to avoid is being too presentist. That is to say, an encyclopedia entry on an institution such as a university should be a fairly broad overview of the entire history of said institution, so we try not to keep adding material covering every little thing lest suddenly our entry devote more to the last five years than to the previous ninety.”

A good answer, and interesting also for the use of a word that's uncommon except perhaps among historians. I don't think I'd ever heard of presentist or presentism until some months back when I read a review of a book of historical essays:

“Of all the fashions discussed in these essays, the one that gets the most attention goes by the rather clumsy name of ‘presentism'; allowing ‘modern sensibilities' to color and often to control our view of the past. … [T]he present ‘should not be the criterion for what we find in the past. Our perceptions and explanations of the past should not be directly shaped by the issues and problems of our own time.' ”

Presentism the word is not in the big Random House, but I guess anything can be an ism. There was a prolific writer of letters to the editor years ago who railed against “all the damnable isms.” He had communism and fascism mainly in mind, I think. Plagiarism is often regarded unfavorably too, yet sometimes we journalists must engage in it. We have a lot of space to fill.

Presentist is in the Random House, but not in the historians' sense. This presentist is “a person who maintains that the prophecies of the Apocalypse are now being fulfilled.”

Presentism the thing is objectionable not just in histories, but in historical fiction too. I hate movies where cowboys of the Old West sound like members of the ACLU.     

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