The Observed Life: Gossip, Secrecy, and the Circulation of Social Knowledge


Key Words

    • Deliver a 5-10 minute oral presentation on a keyword for our courseo

Monday section – presentation schedule
Wednesday section – presentation schedule


What is a keyword?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a keyword as “a word or thing that is of great importance or significance.” I’m using the term in the stronger sense that Raymond Williams developed in his 1976 Marxist study Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.  Williams was interested in the constitutive force of language; that is, he wanted to identify the power certain words play in our culture and to analyze their influence over forms of social and political thought. For Williams, keywords provoke debate; they unsettle meaning and they show where meaning is—or has historically been—contested. Most of Williams’ keywords were in everyday usage, and I hope that this exercise will similarly lead you to new and surprising meanings for words that you think you know. Its aim is:

  1.  to expand your understanding of the different senses and cultural forces behind even simple, ordinary words
  2.  to build up a shared cultural vocabulary for our seminar – “keywords for English 399W”
  3. to practice using the Oxford English Dictionary
  4. to practice communicating complex ideas in a spoken presentation

Suggested keywords:
Note: you are also welcome to come up with your own keyword in consultation with me.

babble (see also bibble babble and blatant)
hearsay (see also hearsay evidence)
public (see also publicity)
secret (see also secretary)
speculation (see also speculate)
urban legend

What to include?

 Your presentation should analyze and explain the range of meanings of your key word(s) in modern usage. It should also chart the interesting shifts in the meaning of the word over the centuries from the beginnings of modern English until now. Pay attention to the etymology of your key word(s): when did it first enter the English language and from where? What words and associations are hidden inside its origin and cultural history? To accomplish these tasks you will need to consult the Oxford English Dictionary, available through the CUNY+ database: :  (If you have a QC ID card activated by the library then you can access this and other databases remotely from your home by typing in the barcode on the back of your card). When you have found your word, investigate all its forms, and be sure to click on “etymology,” “quotations,” and “date chart” for maximum information.

In addition to providing a dictionary definition and word history, try to develop an argument about the lines of inquiry the history and usage of your keyword might open up.  You can do this in one of several different ways:

  1. By showing how your discoveries affect your interpretation of a work or works we’ve read together, either for that week or in the weeks previous to your presentation.
  2.  By thinking, more generally, about what research agendas and/or activist projects a developed understanding of your keyword might enable.
  3.  By thinking about what obstructionist work your keyword accomplishes: how does it coerce, prejudice, or negatively influence forms of thoughts; what ways of thinking does it disable or close off?
  4.  By focusing on a specific historical (no longer extant) usage of your keyword and exploring its importance in a particular time or place.
  5.  By focusing on how your keyword functions in a particular context such as the law or legal history.

Additional Advice:

You should not feel constrained by the scope of our class readings. Introduce any additional materials—audio, visual, digital, textual—that you wish.

Don’t limit your findings to the OED. Find other ways of researching your key word. For example, have a go at using Google’s Ngram Viewer which graphs the frequency of words in books across history:

If you need anything photocopied, send it to me the morning before your presentation, at the absolute latest, and I’ll make handouts for you to distribute to the class.

The 5-10 minute time-limit is a strict one (it roughly equates to reading a script of around 3 pages) and will force you to be concise. Your presentation will be more successful if it is focused and analytic rather than comprehensive. Rather than trying to cover all lines of inquiry choose one and organize your ideas around it.

Make sure your presentation is easy to follow. It’s a good idea to practice reading it aloud two or three times either to yourself or to a friend before presenting it to the class.

AW – August 29, 2011

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