Friday, August 3, 2012

Adventures in Word Choice

"De Soto Discovering the Mississippi" Library of Congress
I have been doing a fair amount of interpretive writing in the past several weeks. I consider writing a craft and words as tools. I am always trying to figure out how I can improve my own craft.  Word choice impacts conveyed meaning and is a large part of this craft. Even synonyms serve various purposes in the same manner that different tools serves different purposes. Most recently, I have been dabbling with the words "explorer," "adventure," "quest,"and "discover," and words with similar meanings. Between writing for an exhibit we are hosting this fall and writing for the website, I am struck how easily these seemingly similar words interchange and yet, those interchanges can make a great difference in meaning.

There are guidelines for writing for the public, there are guidelines for writing interpretively, and there are guidelines published by the National Park Service's Harper's Ferry Center (HFC) to ensure published writers follow best practices. Navigating these guidelines can be tricky, but I enjoy the challenge. What do I want to say and how do I want to say it? What do I want visitors to remember when they finish reading this piece? One of the guidelines (under the use of the word "explorer") specified in the HFC Editorial Guide states, "avoid 'discoverer' unless that is truly the case. Consider others' points of view. In certain cases, the term 'traveler' may be appropriate." When writing the article on American Indians in Louisiana for the website, language choice made a huge difference. The Spanish did not "discover" this territory; in fact, the area had fairly advanced civilizations well before the height of Rome in Europe. I don't use the word "discover" when I talk about De Soto's arrival. Instead, I use the word "explore." But what does that mean?

Explore comes from the Latin word explorare, "to flow out" or "to cause to flow out." The early use of the Latin referred to medical procedures "to flow" or even "to probe" (probing the areas that flow, the open wounds). In the 1600s, as Europeans began searching for the Northwest Passage, the common definition of searching for something became associated with the word. To "explore" meant to seek an answer, to find something. The probing of a land mass through its waterways was one way this word related to the earlier medical use of the term.

The Spanish, indeed, were seeking something, were exploring. But there is a neutral sense to the word "explore." Heck, the National Park Service's Junior Ranger program's motto is "Explore, Learn, Protect: Become a Junior Ranger." Exploring is fun! It is just a seeking of... anything! But the early Spanish seekers who called themselves "conquistadors" were not just seeking neutrally. "Conquistador" means "conqueror." They were seeking wealth, territory, land, gold, and expansion of their ideas (evangelism) in the name of Spain. Did the natives conquered by the Europeans consider the Spanish "explorers?" Or "travelers?" Or "conquerers?" Or "invaders?" Or "destroyers?" I can easily trade the word "discover" for "explorer" but what if I am trying to impress the brutality one people caused upon another people? And what is my responsibility in telling 1) a complete story that is 2) considerate of all viewpoints?

Those ideas tumble around in my head like colorful laundry pieces in a dryer when I encounter my next challenge. I am collaborating with a local Latin American heritage group to help them tell their stories through events and a temporary exhibit hosted at our center. Spain influenced this area and there is a minor, but influential, Latin American presence in this region. One of my tasks include pulling together the text for the history portion of the temporary exhibit. The Spanish came, they claimed, and they invited other groups to settle in this region (like the Acadians in the 1760s). If I answer the "why" portion of that statement, I use the terms "conquer" and "invade." My community relations sensitivity (and that voice that wants to be inclusive) tells me that I should also be mindful of those of Spanish descent when using word choice, particularly those words. So do I just fall back on explorer? The ideas are roughly the same, right? Are there ways to tell this story while being inclusive to all parties, telling a more complete history, with a twist in word choice?
"Advantures mal-heureules du la Salle"
(Library of Congress)

Fitting in with the "explorer v. discoverer" idea I have been pondering is the "adventure v. quest" concept (that I also have been pondering). A while back, I read a post about the differences between "adventure" and "quest." I like to think I go on adventures, but then philosophical me wants to argue that seeking adventure is a form of a quest. A quest has a purpose, an adventure just happens unintentionally. If I seek adventure, has my adventure turned into quest? Spaniards quested for gold and territory (among other things) but sometimes wound up adventuring (as they discovered for themselves new lands or waterways... note that I say for themselves- these lands and waterways were often already populated or used by other peoples). How can I integrate those ideas into my stories?

I started these writing projects as quests, with a design and a purpose, but have found myself more and more adventuring my way through using the English language to tell a story in a manner that provokes thought. Now I wonder about myself as an interpreter and what it is that I do?

Should interpretation be considered more an adventure or a quest? Do interpreters quest or adventure (or both)? How about visitors? 

*Note: thoughts expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect that of anybody else, the National Park Service included.

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