Keywords and Raymond Williams’ Method

Raymond Williams followed a distinct approach through which he  considered most of his selected Keywords. Whether this was explicit or not is unclear, but there is a definite approach that the consideration of new Keywords like “aspirational” can follow.

This short note draws heavily upon Alan Durant’s piece in Critical Quarterly in 2006, entitled Raymond Williams’ Keywords: investigating meanings `offered, felt for, tested, confirmed, asserted, qualified changed.’ The full text is to be found on the Pittsburgh Keywords Project website: The whole article is worth reading, but I am focussing here on the section “Structure of a Keywords entry”, between Pages 9 and 15.

1.Opening statement on difficulties

The difficulties surrounding the chosen word are stressed, even if the meaning looks simple at first sight. Two sources of confusion are the historical changes in meaning (diachronic), and the multiple concurrent uses and meanings that can obscure and entangle arguments (synchronic). Both difficulties are related, so that concurrent meanings have been conditioned by the historical development of language.

The historical changes in meaning are stressed, with meanings that have varied through time; some meanings may have faded away, some have disappeared altogether, while others have come to prominence.

Concurrent meanings, historically developed, can be used in different contexts, so that a word like “liberal” (Durant’s example) can be used in a pejorative sense against certain kinds of policy, or to describe generosity or abundance.

2.Description of meaning changes

The difficulties are acknowledged and illustrated by a straight descriptive approach.

The opening approach is (generally) to consult the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources to establish the etymology of the word, working “through a succession of meaning changes and simultaneous variants towards the current array of meanings”. This includes quotations that set the meaning of the word in historical context.

On a more scattered basis, reference may be made to the development of the word in other languages – such as the German use of “alienation”.

The difficulties are not those of linguistic semantics, whereby the reasons for meaning change are analysed. Williams was more interested in the pressures under which words change meanings, including adversarial ones. Such pressures need to be discerned and analysed.

3.Closing comments

The entry for each keyword ends in one of two ways.

Either, the pitfalls in the use of the word are stressed, and rather than advocate simplification to a single meaning, the problems which this places for social practice are considered and analysed.

Or, the relations between this chosen keyword and other keywords are stressed. Durant uses the example of “welfare”, which developed because of the potentially pejorative meanings of “charity”; although both words can be used in adversarial senses.

The example of “aspirational”

How would a Keywords approach to the word “aspirational” be developed? In summary:

  1. Explain why it is difficult, from its historical development and concurrent meanings.
  2. Discern and describe meaning changes, beginning with OED, quotations, possible international influences and variations, and the pressures under which it has developed.
  3. Consider pitfalls in the use of this word, and how it relates to other keywords. I would suggest class and status in this context.

This might sound like a cold, semantic academic exercise in pedantry. What makes it worthwhile is the political context in which this and other words have been, and are being, used. The politics of this use of language as a social practice should infuse the whole process of analysis. Williams did not produce Keywords for the academic kudos, to enter it for the REF, or as a paid idle pastime. He produced it to try to help to change the world, “as we go on making our own language and history”. That is my reading, anyway.

(My apologies to Professor Durant if I have over-simplified or misrepresented his discussion).

I may return to update this note.

13 August 2015.


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