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?

5 thoughts on “Defining One’s Terms

  1. Ray O'Hara August 5, 2011 / 10:41 pm

    You know his definition, a Southerner is anybody who says they are one and everybody else is a Northerner.

    But terms/names like Northerner, Southerner and Yankee take their meaning from the context.
    To a non-American we are all Yankees. to a Rebel any boy in Blue was a Yankee,
    Being a lifelong New Englander with a good Boston accent,I would be considered a Yankee anywhere in the US outside of N.E.
    , but here where one finally distills it down to what a Yankee is I am not one because of my Irish ancestry/heritage, nor is any other of the common New Englander types like Italian and the French , Yankee is reserved for Wasps who can trace their family back to colonial times{there are quite a lot of them}.
    all those are valid definition of Yankee,

    In your question you showed a bias in what the South is considered to to be.
    You Mentioned De, Md,and Miami. we can add D.C.and Northern Va to that list
    What is changing in those places? the local whites guys aren’t redneck yahoos and the Blacks aren’t rural folk..
    Miami is the Capital of the Caribbean . and the others are being absorbed by “the north”
    they are turning into New Jerseys.

    also Southerner stands in as a polite replacement for Rebel Bastard as we here in the northeast might call them.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 6, 2011 / 9:31 am

      You can add northern Virginia and DC to that list, but having resided in Virginia and having done a lot of work in DC, I would not. Northern Virginia’s an interesting mix, but it’s still “Virginia,” and DC has more southern links (still) than one might at first suppose. I don’t associate the South with rural blacks (ever hear of Atlanta?) and redneck yahoos. Maybe someone’s displaying their bias, but not me.

  2. Tony Gunter August 6, 2011 / 12:47 pm

    Southerners live between I-10 and I-20. Everyone else is a yankee.

  3. Richard August 6, 2011 / 4:00 pm

    After reading a blog entry about a similar topic a few months ago (I think it was Robert Moore’s) I asked some friends from work (a couple of whom had lived in Alabama for much of their lives) and some message board buddies to define “southerner” and did not find any consistent response. Some replied with geographic terms, naming certain states, or saying south of the Ohio River east of the Mississippi or just saying former Confederate states, but others used cultural descriptions like the kind of food or beverage that people like (sweet tea, barbecue, grits) or personality traits of the people who are “southern.” Of course this latter category was full of with positive terms – “hospitable” “friendly” “laid back” “never met a stranger” etc, Even sports interests was mentioned. One dear friend who was born in Mississippi and lived in Texas & Alabama has often told me I’m southern and one reason is that “University of Kentucky is in the Southeastern Conference, isn’t it?)

    And on one message board I frequent, there is a question that comes up every year or two yet no consensus is ever reached – “is Kentucky southern?” That seems to stump everybody. It seems that many people feel that some parts are but others (particularly Louisville and Northern Kentucky) aren’t.

    I realize that my questions were in a non-historic framework, but it the variety of answers in my experience may be similar to how that question is answered within a historic discipline.

    My best response to the question, I suppose is that “southerness” is like beauty – all in the eye of the beholder.

  4. David Rhoads August 6, 2011 / 7:11 pm

    The definition agreed upon by my mother-in-law and my grandmother was that a place was southern if the local grocery store carried “Southern Living” magazine.

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