Nouns and the names of things: Why historians must use historical dictionaries

“A Noun is the name of a thing” repeated a young U.S. Grant.

So what is a banquette?

Well if you are house shopping or the wife has you doing some of that feng shui focused home improvements, this is a banquette:

Horse shoe Banquette

But this blog is not about upholstered breakfast nooks. It is about military history, scoped to the Civil War, and that breed of stuff. So what was a banquette in the Civil War context? This thing:

Castillo 2 Aug 11 997

Yes, the coquina stone gives this away. It’s the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. While built some centuries before the Civil War, the facility was active during the Civil War … so…. close enough. Scott’s Military Dictionary defined a banquette as:

… the step of earth within the parapet, sufficiently high to enable the defenders, when standing upon it, to fire over the crest of the parapet with ease.

By the time of the Civil War banquettes were still seen on some fortifications, but were often replaced by batteries in barbette.

Baltimore 16 May 10 249

Sort of “big banquettes” for bigger guns, if you want to stretch the definition.

But you see where I’m going with this word game. The modern context of the “noun” differs greatly from that used in 1862. In some cases, the 21st century context may prevent us from understanding how a term was used during the Civil War. I discussed just such an example with the “masked battery” concept. (Or if you will, the “grapeshot” so often reported.) That’s why I keep references like Scott’s Military Dictionary, and even standard encyclopedias from the 19th century, handy. Such are essential to understand the “names of things” as they were used in the historical context.

An even better example of why the historical definition are important for us to understand comes from a recent post on the Civil War Monitor’s Front Line Blog. Christopher Rucker discussed what Civil War sailors called a “blue light”. Read the whole article, but in short Rucker explained that a “blue light” was not simply a blue lens over a standard lantern. Rather it was a specific type of pyrotechnic lighting. Why is that of any significance? Well read Rucker’s explanation of the Hunley’s “blue light.”

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5 responses to “Nouns and the names of things: Why historians must use historical dictionaries

  1. Pingback: Remember to check your dictionary | MaineMilitia.com

  2. I wonder if the military pronunciation was “banK-ette”? I agree with you that a “period” dictionary would be nice to have if one writes about history. I have not been able to locate one from the mid- 19th century. 1919 is as old as I have. To know the meaning of the word “ragged” in the context of 1861-1865 would be of great interest to me and clear up the ragged Rebel debate as well! (Not forgetting the ragged Yankee!)

  3. Also check the OED.

  4. There is an online copy of Noah Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language Comprising the Issues of 1864, 1879 and 1884: http://www.archive.org/details/webstersinternat01webs. This is one of the primary sources which I used in my research on the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley’s “blue light.” Google’s book search software is an excellent tool for locating period dictionaries, etc, since an online search can be tailored by dates.

    • Thanks Mr. Rucker for the link. I often use Google books, Internet Archive, and Hathi Trust but it never occurred to me to use them as a source for a dictionary. I am embarrassed to say the least!

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