Defining One’s Terms

We often employ terms without thinking very much about what we mean.  Often there are built-in assumptions that need to be made explicit, and call upon us to modify the terms we use so that we say what we mean.

I first had cause to think about about this when I was reading Why the Confederacy Lost, a collection of essays edited by Gabor Boritt.  Historian Reid Mitchell was at pains to distinguish between “the South” and “the Confederacy;” in turn one hears the word “southerner” employed, when what is meant is “white southerner.”  More recently I cam across a fellow who loves to muse about what northerners think of the South and southerners (and how northerners define that term), but he was always hard-pressed and somewhat muddled-minded when asked to define “the North” and northerners.  Is Wyoming part of “the North”?  Arizona?  California?  Hawaii?  Having lived in New York, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin for significant amounts of time, I’d be hard-pressed to group all three as “the North,” just as, having lived in Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, I find that calling all three former Confederate states “the South” masks significant differences.  You can even say that these boundaries change over time: Delaware, a slave state in 1860, is rarely considered “the South” by many people, and something of the same goes for Maryland, while Florida, with two NHL franchises, is more Florida than “the South” to many people (ever think of Miami as a “southern” city?  Jacksonville, Gainesville, and St. Augustine, yes; but Orlando and Miami?).

The same thing applies to definitions of history.  What is “southern history?”  Surely it’s more than the history of four years of Confederate history … and not all the South was Confederate.  Do we equate southern history with the fifteen slaves states of 1860?  Moreover, no one speaks of “northern history.”  Oh, I once took a “History of New England” course (at the University of Virginia), but never a history of the middle Atlantic states or the Old Northwest (although there is a book on that subject).  In my neck of the woods, people debate how to define “western history,” and whether it includes what some call “Turner’s West” (from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi).  Indeed, at a time when my department was embracing an identity as a Western history department, I would remark that in their time Lincoln and Grant were both considered Westerners, and so I, too, could be considered a Western historian, depending on definitions (I then reviewed a book on Hawaii, and so claimed that I was more western than any of them … some colleagues did not appreciate this, but it served to point out the provincial nature of their definitions).

And then there’s the matter of race.  I now tend not to use “southerner” unless I mean both white and black southerners.  When I want to speak of white southerners, I say southerner, and when I mean to speak about secessionists and Confederates, I call those people secessionists and Confederates.  Over time I’ve started to apply the same to “northerner,” for there were black northerners, although not nearly as many blacks lived in the North as in the South, and I treat Native Americans/indigenous peoples separately, and by tribe/nation where appropriate.  So this is an evolving process, reflecting my own evolving thinking and understanding of what words mean.

So … how do you define “the South?”  Southerner?  “The North?”  Northerner?  What are the consequences of your definitions?  What do they say about how you understand peoples and their history?