Jumping to and from conclusions

Dear President Biden,

I forgot to mention it before, but Wednesday we had a lovely five minutes or so in the middle of the day during which the clouds spit enough to splatter the windows and make the air smell like summer rain. I’m sure there was no measurable precipitation but after the very long dry spell punctuated by “apocalyptic high temperatures,” it was pretty wonderful to get even a little bit of rain.

Yesterday at the end of a meeting we were discussing vacation schedules and when it looked like multiple people would be out at once, I said something to the effect of “no worries, ‘Sheila’ and I will hold down the fort.” As soon as it was out of my mouth I felt squirmy and put out a hasty rework “uhm, I mean we’ll handle things while you all are gone.” I was certain that the fort phrase was an old byproduct from when White people were actively in the business of claiming land that was not ours from Native Americans and that it referenced keeping the (righteously) warring hoards of them at bay. And I said as much. And the other White women, who comprise the staff, nodded sagely and thanked me for being so mindful of language. I didn’t mean to make a big deal of it and felt a little awkward, but truth be told, I also felt a little smug. Sigh.

So as not to forget to tell you about it, I jotted the phrase down last night and vowed to myself that I would look it up in the morning, which I did. Well, the first hit went right along with my thinking — in a blog post Mary-Frances Winters digs into “a nation of immigrants” and the fort phrase and maintains that they are insensitive to indigenous peoples. She cites and links to a statement by former chief diversity officer of the US State Department, John S. Robinson, from 2012, which purportedly says the same thing about the fort phrase. That link is inactive now, but Mark Liberman links to the actual article in State Magazine and includes an extended quote in his piece on the Language Log before he completely demolishes the argument, which I’ll get to in a sec. I first want to note that Fox News also picked it up in 2012, but rather surprisingly, they just report what Robinson said without any editorializing.

Back to Mark Liberman… Dr. Mark Liberman that is. He’s a full professor at UPenn with a dual appointment in Linguistics and Computer and Information Sciences and he seems to know his way around sorting out the origins of phrases. In his piece linked above about the fort phrase he reports having found some references to it from Scotland and England and one from our Civil War but none pertaining to the idea that White people out on the American Western frontier ever used the phrase to signal that they were protecting a fort (or anything else) from Native Americans – not a one. He does this without any finger-wagging about over zealous word watchers and instead just walks the reader through the timeline of published instances of the phrase and what was being referenced.

And, I still don’t think I want to use the phrase anymore. It conjures a militaristic sort of posture and there’s way too much casual violence in our everyday language (e.g., “that’s what I’m shooting for,” “when push comes to shove,” “she went ballistic” etc.). Plus, I know me and I know the phrase will continue to bug me no matter how convincing Dr. Liberman’s treatise on the subject is.

May we be safe from casually violent language.
May we be willing to admit when we’re wrong.
May we find a healthy balance between spontaneity and respectful speech.
May we accept we are all works in progress.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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