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The French Have a Word for It 

12-09-2015 17:35

A few weeks ago, stuck in the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog (no matter where I move, I can always count on the Boston University Alumni Association and Pottery Barn to track me down) was a poignant plea for help. The League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) was reaching out to its members to resolve a long-standing debate: Would it be "theatre" or "theater"?

To most of us in the trenches fighting to preserve what we can, it might at first seem a singularly insignificant question. One might reasonably assert that while we all sit around playing parlor games concerning the proper pairing of a consonant and a vowel, we could be losing yet another rural opera house, downtown movie palace, or suburban drive-in. Our job as preservationists is to fight to save tangible manifestations of our past, not argue about linguistic niceties. Right?

Perhaps. Certainly my initial reaction to the LHAT missive was to relegate it to the blue plastic recycling box under my desk. (I have a sickening suspicion that nothing in my "recycling box" actually gets recycled, but my participation in this charade has allowed me to rescue countless documents that turned out to be more important that they seemed on first reading.) And so it was in this case. A short time after the impertinent request had joined a "How to Manage Your Time Effectively" seminar announcement (lesson one: Don`t open any mail that includes "or current resident" in the mailing label), I had a sudden flash from the memory banks. There was Mr. Gutherie, my long suffering high school English teacher, gravely intoning: "language matters."

While Mr. Gutherie may have exhibited dubious wisdom in trying to teach Joyce`s Ulysses to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds, he did manage to instill respect for the English language and a distaste bordering on prudishness for the worst abuses of the language. When I expressed a gathering-in- my-skirts shock at the redundancy of an early draft of the National Trust`s new mission statement that included the phrase "revitalizing the livability," I was really just channeling the ghost of my crabby high school English teacher.

Despite his anglophile, old world order tendencies (no one else in my high school could possibly have gotten away with wearing an ascot), I`m pretty certain where Mr. Gutherie would come down on the theater/theatre question. While both are technically acceptable, "theater" is direct and salt-of-the-earth, while "theatre" is fussy and pretentious. (I shudder to imagine his reaction to those who pronounce the word "thee-ay-ter." Populist he wasn`t.)

The ghost of Mr. Gutherie led me on a quest. In an "inquiring minds need to know" mood, I shot off an e-mail to the good folks at LHAT to find out the survey results. Terry Demas with the League reported that this was no "you say tomayto and I say tomahto" sort of thing. He got nearly 100 responses, and many included fighting words. It turns out that at least at the LHAT, Britannia rules: At last count, it was a landslide vote for "theatre."

While the success of the LHAT in its mission to preserve old theaters probably won`t hinge on spelling, there is no denying that underlying the theater/theatre question is a serious issue. Language has an extraordinary power to shape the way we think. The words we choose inevitably send messages about who we are and what we believe. Part and parcel of our preservation efforts is our struggle as a movement to define and articulate exactly what we`re fighting for. In the age of the sound bite, we disregard the importance of the language of preservation at our own peril.

We have reason to be concerned. It takes only a quick scan of the popular press to realize that they get terms like National Register and National Historic Land-mark right maybe 50 percent of the time. If you insist upon their actually getting the meaning right, the success rate drops significantly. The National Trust suffers the same fate. Even when we`re not confused with the National Register our name is still likely to be garbled, and that`s not including the intentional hysterical/historical lampoons. The editor of this journal reports that she once received correspondence addressed to the "National Trust for Stork Preservation." Just yesterday I read a New York Times editorial that got the name right in the first paragraph, only to refer to "the Historic Trust" two paragraphs later.

Certainly, we have no shortage of words at our disposal. As the historic preservation movement has matured, we have developed our own lexicon. The Dictionary of Building Preservation (Wiley) includes more than 10,000 terms, but I`ve noticed plenty of omissions (where`s "Googie"?!). Many of our words have developed organically and reflect the ease with which the English language accommodates change. The term "facadism" has come into widespread usage to disparage some of the more egregious examples of gut rehabs (though I`m still partial to "facadomy"). A few years ago, when the National Trust was staring down the barrel of losing its federal appropriation and eager to "think outside the box," Utah Advisor Tina Lewis would regularly regale fellow advisors with the latest "Washington word." What`s fascinating is how quickly her Washington words became our words. Despite the unifying force of the National Trust, the National Park Service (NPS), and other national players, preservationists even have room for regional disparities-I`m certain that the pronunciation of "SHPO" is the future fodder for a linguistics thesis.

The pronunciation of "SHPO" is not the only linguistic inconsistency among preservationists. For example, is it "an history book" or "a history book?" Even the most ardent grammarians have a hard time making a rule that sticks-it all depends on how you pronounce the "h." If you heavily aspirate the "h" sound, you should probably go with "a." Even so, it`s not so cut-and-dried: it makes sense to speak of "a history book on an historical subject." Why? With the shift of stress from history to historical goes a softening of the "h" sound. (No copy editor would let you get away with that in writing, though.)

Then there`s the ever popular "historic" versus "historical" debate. No room for a laissez-faire attitude here. The two words have distinct uses, and are not interchangeable. The site of a historic battle (important in history) might be designated a historical park (relating to history). (Though why it is "historic preserva-tion" I doubt that even Mr. Gutherie could explain. He would probably call it an accepted collocation and deftly change the subject.) Likewise, there`s no grammatical rule as to whether something should be listed "in" or "on" the National Register. That doesn`t mean you`re free to decide, though. The NPS has laid down the law here (I just can never remember what the law is).

Some of our vocabulary is enshrined in our sacred scriptures, including the Secretary of the Interior`s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties and the National Historic Preservation Act. (Never mind that to most people the Secretary`s Standards sounds like a style manual for temps.) Federal laws and regulations are a particularly fertile source of acronyms, from cheerful sounding ISTEA (now superceded by TEA-21) and FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact, for the uninitiated) to the malicious-sounding RFRA ("Religious Freedom Restoration Act"). And then there`s that group in Louisiana. No one can deny that the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training is a mouthful, but is NCPTT really an improvement?

Despite the richness of our professional patois, we usually fall back on a few old workhorses. The problem is, none of them really hits the nail on the head. "Historic resource" makes most people`s eyes slam shut even if they know what it means. "Cultural resource," on the other hand, is as likely to conjure up Monteverdi as Monticello, much less the corner grocery. Likewise, "cultural landscape" may mean something to the anointed, but it`s not a term that has entered the popular lexicon.

Other countries employ "patrimony" with reasonable success, but to an American ear, it sounds gender-biased and elitist. Some have found a misogynist core in the word "history," for that matter. The neologism "herstory" would be a great feminist touché, were it not based on an ignorance of etymology. (Still, as the Washington, D.C., civil servant who made the mistake of using the word "niggardly" in public now knows, etymology-schmetemology. If it sounds nasty, best avoid it.) Our neighbors to the north have settled upon "heritage," and employ it in any number of combinations. (I haven`t heard of any rear-guard "hisirtage" movement, but give it time). Here in the U.S., "heritage" may be fatally co-opted. We can probably thank the Heritage Foundation for this. Talk about preserving your heritage, and many people will conjure up the Confederate Stars and Bars flying over the South Carolina Capitol.

This is by no means the only case where we`ve been lexically trumped. Preservationists have long contended that our movement is fundamentally about sensible stewardship of resources. Consider the bitter irony, then, of the zealots who seek to open up public lands to the worst sort of private exploitation calling themselves the "wise use" movement.

Their co-conspirators, the property rights folks, have also out-maneuvered us on the language front. Preservationists have tried valiantly to avoid being portrayed as anti-property rights. Yet we have resorted to legalese. First, we call the basis of the right of government to regulate the treatment of historic properties "police power" (ouch). We then insist on framing our right to exercise police power as a "takings" issue. You can almost hear the chorus of "huh?"s across the land.

Imitation, the saying goes, is the highest form of flattery. But perhaps the same cannot be said when the word with which you identify yourself becomes shorthand for all that is wrong with the world. For some reason I`ve never quite fathomed, those who want to really lay into our green colleagues brand them "preservationists." The Western Caucus of the U.S. Congress ("Western" should by rights be in quotes, since their membership extends to such states of dubious western pedigree as Pennsylvania and Florida) has a policy position of "Conservation, Not Preservation." The Western Caucus "believes that renewable natural resources are not fragile and static, but resilient and dynamic. Management-not preservation-is the best way to achieve environmental progress." Go figure. (The Caucus might consider having a word with the Lake Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council, which seems chiefly interested in preserving the right to despoil the environment).

Lately there`s been a lot of talk about preservation of the "recent past"-an admirably vague term that avoids nasty demarcation battles. And for good reason too, because everyone loves a Doggie Diner sign. One of the great tests of the preservation movement will be to successfully tap the passions of a generation who get excited not about Mansard roofs and limestone, but Mansard roofs and plastic. Unfortunately, the populist groundswell of supporters who helped save the Downey McDonalds is unlikely to wave a banner in the name of "commercial archeology."

The National Park Service made a great philosophical leap forward when it explicitly recognized the importance of places that play a role in a community`s historically rooted beliefs, customs, and practices, but pulled a bit of a boner by naming these places "Traditional Cultural Properties." Traditional, yes, cultural, that too, but "property" is a concept that is antithetical to many of the values that the designation seeks to protect. For better or worse, "TCP" quickly became the shorthand, allowing us to pretend that the "P" stands for "place," a term that carries much less ethnocentric baggage.

The preservation movement`s entry into the land-use- planning debate has bought with it a whole new series of language pitfalls. First off, there`s the "S" word. We think that we all know what "sprawl" is, but it`s as elusive to pin down as pornography. And "quality of life"? Fuggedaboudit.

Still, we`re learning. First of all, we now know it is much better to be for something than against something. The developers insist on giving us sprawl, but we now offer an alternative. It`s not that we`re against growth, it`s that we`re for smart growth! Now you may think that no one could be against smart growth, but think again. Why settle for smart growth when you can be growing smarter? I`m not making this up. That`s the name of an Arizona effort that seems to be all about growing, with very little in the way of smarts. Still, they`ve succeeded in making "smart growth" of questionable pedigree.

What`s a preservationist to do? I`ve been trawling around in search of linguistic manna for the HP community, and I think I have a candidate: terroir. My on-line French-English dictionary offers "soil" as a translation, but the English word doesn`t begin to express the range and subtlety of the French. The word evokes the coming together of all those qualities of a place-geography, geology, climate, culture, history-to create something that is unique and intrinsic.

The American wine press, a crowd that has never been shy about pushing the limits of the language (wines made from lowly Concord grapes are said to taste "foxy") has found a new religion in terroir. This is in response to the globalization of the wine business, which has seen vineyards corporatized and industrialized to within an inch of their lives. In today`s market-driven world, wine mongers offer you your heart`s desire, as long as your heart yearns for Chardonnay or Merlot. It seems that yanking out all those old vines that were unique to a country, or even a valley, may not have been such a good idea after all. People are drowning in a vat of generic plonk, and are increasingly desperate not for the ubiquitous, but for the unique.

Of course, this is what preservationists have been arguing all along. But maybe we in turn can learn from the integrated, holistic approach advocated by those who make vin du terroir. By thinking of a place in terms of its terroir, it quickly becomes apparent that the much-ballyhooed conflict between man and nature (between cultural and natural resource management, in preservation-speak) is not a zero-sum game. Places are special and worth preserving for a whole range of qualities. If preservationists, planners, and environmentalists all work together to preserve the local terroir, the (non-contributing) walls we`ve built between our disciplines might come tumbling down. The Terroir Trust, anyone?

Maybe not. Those French R`s are hell to pronounce, and I`m not sure that French is the key to the minds and hearts of the American people. Maybe what we need to adopt from French farmers isn`t a word, but their back-to-basics approach that stresses the local over the global, the unique over the generic. Maybe the words of our own founding fathers and mothers still serve us well:

"The historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people." --National Historic Preservation Act (16 USC 470 et seq.) Section 1(b) (2).

I couldn`t have said it better myself.

Publication Date: Spring 2000


Author(s):Anthony Veerkamp

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