I have an affinity for useless information. The less practical or applicable it is, the more it sticks in my brain. Can I remember almost every line from The Pirates of Penzance because I worked a show as lighting crew in seventh grade? Sure, I have information vegetable, animal, and mineral, and I certainly know the kings of England and can quote the fights historical. Do I remember where I put my house keys yesterday afternoon? No, no I do not. My mom still calls me “the Jeopardy! kid,” but I’ve never tried a game show, since it would make all the little bits of trivia I’ve collected useful and I would, as a consequence, forget them immediately.
Of all the factoids I have acquired, two in particular haunt my brain. The first of these is a delightful irony. Factoid, in its first use in print in 1973, meant “a statement assumed to be fact because of its appearance in print or other authoritative media.” The suffix -oid, after all, means “similar to”—an android is that which is like a human (andro-) in form and movement. But factoid was used so often in authoritative media to mean “small nugget of information” that its meaning has changed. If you’re keeping score at home, yes, that was a factoid about factoid being a factoid.
The second is perhaps a bit more in the spirit of the upcoming holiday, stretching to cover the entire autumnal spooky season. Boo is not just a noise pulled from the ether and assigned to ghosts. It’s a Latin verb. Boo, boare, boavi, boatus, to give its dictionary form, means “to cry aloud, bellow, roar; call loudly upon.” And since boo is the first person, singular, indicative active form of that verb, if a ghost were to pop up at you with a “Boo!” it’s actually saying, “I am shouting!” In response, you might try “Salve, amice, sed si tibi placet, vox secreta” (Hello, please use your inside voice). Or run away screaming.
I’d probably run away screaming, if I’m honest.
That a ghost might not use their inside voice is understandable. What is a ghost, after all, but a historical trauma, some unfinished business made inescapably present but untouchable. As I suggested in May when I described the topics that will be threaded through this year’s Perspectives, many such historical specters are with us today. From old, totalizing historiographies to unaddressed institutional legacies, we are all haunted by histories universal and particular, unquiet pasts that torture the present.
The easiest way to get rid of a ghost is to give it what it wants—vengeance, or justice, or reparations, or absolution—and to find out what a ghost wants, you need to know its history. This is our trade as historians; our tools are specifically honed for the task. But we must also put the resulting wisdom in the hands of those who might help us perform the exorcism—politicians, activists, boards, educators. This has proven difficult, to say the least. Some accuse the ghost of being overly dramatic. Others refuse to believe that a given ghost exists at all, though the rest of us clearly see it booing in their ear, demanding an acknowledgment of its presence.
And as long as I’m elbow deep in the metaphor, I’ll also say this: some ghosts can’t be banished, or at least not at present. Maybe they themselves don’t know what they want, or we can’t figure out how to give it to them. Whatever the case, they can’t be left shouting, “I am shouting!” in our faces. We must learn to live with them, to invite them into our company and seek their conversation. This, too, is our trade as historians; our tools are honed for this task as well.
Leland Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
Tags: From the Editor
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