The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

When Terminology Irritates People

A few days ago I stood in a construction trailer while another archaeologist, my superior at the company for which I work, explained the process of testing an archaeological site for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places. In order for a site to be eligible, it must be relatively intact (or, in regulatory terms, "maintain integrity") and also "have significance", that is, it must meet one of the criteria for listing on the register (see here for a description). Because the regulatory language states that the site must "have significance", archaeologists often refer to this process as significance testing, and often refer to register eligible sites as significant.

As my superior was explaining this process to the project engineer, I looked over at the Native American liaison for the project, herself a member of a local tribal council, who whispered to me "I hate the term 'significance'."
Later that day, as I dug holes in the site, the Native American liaison came by to see how we were doing. She and I got to talking, and the subject of regulatory terminology came up. While she acknowledged that the term significance was used because it has a specific regulatory meaning, she felt that it was a term loaded with other meanings, and therefore she found it upsetting. As she put it, just because a site doesn't have research potential for archaeologists doesn't mean that it is insignificant for Native Americans, and the use of the term implied this, whether or not that is intended.

I think that she's right. While the term has a specific regulatory meaning, it is often used in contexts and discussions where only a small portion of the participants are familiar with the regulations, and therefore it is likely to be understood more broadly than it's regulatory meaning. What's more, we have a perfectly acceptable (and arguably more appropriate) term that we can use: register eligible. In the end, when we describe a site as significant, what we are actually saying is that it is eligible for the register. This being the case, why not simply say "register eligible" and be both more precise and less likely to upset or offend the Native American community.

Don't get me wrong, I am usually annoyed by people who demand that perfectly legitimate terms be used in order to avoid offense. But, in this case, the nature of the offense is due to the term being understood by it's normal rather than specialized meaning, and there is a more precise and arguably better substitute. Personally, I think that I will change the way in which I speak.

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