Some thoughts on Raymond Williams’ Keywords

Raymond Williams’ Keywords, much criticised on its publication in 1976, provides a significant document in the field of cultural studies that Williams’ work helped to found.

Williams first conceived this project in 1950; he would consider it to be an appendix to Culture and Society, which itself discussed the meanings of one very critical word, that of “culture”. In Politics and Letters(1979), Williams recorded his surprise that “I could understand the contemporary meanings of terms like ‘culture’ once I had explored the historical semantics behind them” (p.175).

Towards the end of Culture and Society (1958) Williams stated that a glossary of 60 words that had changed meaning during the Industrial Revolution would be produced as a separate paper. The focus should be noted – this was then the period of the English Industrial Revolution (c.1760-1840), not the period up to the present day. Keywords would enlarge the scope of Culture and Society by considering words whose meaning had developed by the 1970s, and the political implications of these transitions.

Keywords could be considered to be an extended dictionary, and it does appear that many readers have used it for this purpose. However, Williams stressed that it was more than a dictionary, dealing with “strong, difficult and persuasive words in everyday usage”. To separate usages, meanings and applications was seen as a political act, not an exercise in semantics.

At the end of Keywords, Williams invited readers to submit material about other terms, and in Politics and Letters he recorded that “Since then I’ve received detailed notes on about two hundred words” (176). He called for the extension of this kind of enquiry. Given that the interviews for Politics and Letters were conducted in June-November 1977, this is an impressive record.

The introduction to New Keywords(2005) stressed that RW’s intention was “to provide a useful, intellectually and historically grounded guide to public questions and struggles for meaning shared by many people in the field of culture and society”.

This indicates Williams’ significant intention in the original production of Keywords: in no way was this an antiquarian enquiry, for its own sake, into the historical meanings of words. His purpose was political: to draw public attention, in whatever form, to the manner in which language changed and the possibility of reclaiming words – and practices – away from the ways in which they had been developed by powerful forces.

Partly for this reason, the supplements to Keywords, developed by the Raymond Williams Foundation workshops from August 2015, make references to contemporary politics. As political circumstances change, these sections will be amended.

I plan to develop further my thoughts on Keywords, so please return to view updates.


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