The Power of a Word—and a Mindset



Elizabeth Shown Mills

Words do have power. They don’t just inform. They can convince or dissuade. They can excite us or they can discourage us. And all of that just might explain something we’ve noticed for two of our recent posts.

Which would you say is the hardest for historical researchers:  Finding records on “people,” or finding records on women?

Virtually every researcher I know would say, Women! Oh, yeah, women!  Females who lived prior to the twentieth century are notoriously hard to identify and even harder to trace through the records that survive for their place and time.

Last month, two postings tackled this subject. First we posted 7 tips for Tracking Elusive People through the Past. The next post offered 6 Tips for Reconstructing the Lives of Yesteryear’s Women.  Counterintuitively, the tips for tracking "people" have garnered many more reads than those tips for reconstructing the lives of "women."

Hindsight makes us wonder: Is it possible that the difference lies in the power of the verb chosen to describe each challenge? “Tracking” a person does sound much more doable.  The word tracking invokes the image of Sherlock Holmes with his magnifying glass, following an elusive character’s prints through a trail of records. Yeah, that’s what we love to do. But reconstructing the life of a woman?  Shudder! The very thought intimidates us. It’s a challenge we’ve tackled so many times—and one we have so many times failed.

So here’s a thought ...

As students of history, all research we do centers upon identity. Even when we are studying events or laws or diplomacy, interpreting circumstances correctly requires us to identify the parties who are involved. Not just by name. A person is far more than a name. To understand the actions of a person, we have to identify them correctly. We need to know who they are in the context of the life they led and the people who influenced them. Given how many name-doppelgängers every historic person has, if our only guide for tracking that person is the name, then we’re likely to go off-track quickly and repeatedly. The thought may make us shudder, but most of the elements we need for accurate identity and successful tracking are the trivial and mundane things we discover when we set out to reconstruct the person.

Mindsets, like words, have power, too. In any research venture, success happens more often when we choose the right words to guide us.

PHOTO CREDITS: "Words Have Power Concept," CanStockPhotos  ( : accessed 20 April 2015), image csp21194068; uploaded by Nevenova, 26 July 2014; used under license.

Posted 30 April 2015