WORD IN THE HAND: HISTORY
You'll find past masters of nonsense throughout history
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Throughout history, people have been starting sentences with the phrase “throughout history” without stopping to think what a ridiculous, empty and meaningless cliché it is.
Fellow word nerds will probably point out that clichés are by definition ridiculous, empty and meaningless, but I felt the need to add emphasis.
When someone says “throughout history”, what they are really referring to is the particular time in a particular place during which a particular group of people have been doing a particular thing.
That’s not “throughout history”. It might be “throughout the history of the Fifa World Cup” perhaps, or “since cats took over the Internet”, but no one can ever claim that something has been happening since the beginning of time (another cliché) because no one was around then, so who’s to say what kind of soccer those prehistoric cats were playing?
Getting back to recent history, a lot of people have been saying: “Throughout history, people have been arguing about history.”That is blatant nonsense. What they mean is: “Ever since people have been telling stories about what may or may not have happened to them and to those who went before them, there have been arguments about whose version of events is the most believable and the most important.”
That sentence takes up more space but you have to admit it’s more accurate. It doesn’t solve the what-history-to-teach debate, unfortunately, but putting history in its place might calm the opponents down a bit.
History is a funny old word. It comes from the ancient Greek histor, meaning a judge or a wise man, which morphed into historia, which variously meant: to make inquiries; to give an account in response to an inquiry; and keeping a record of stuff by telling people about it.
That is pretty much what we still understand today by “history”, but neither language nor history ever travels in a straight line.
Before it became an English word, history wandered off the field for a refreshment break and became histoire. In France in the 12th century, this term applied equally to true and false versions of events.
Perhaps the French acceptance that fact and fiction were equally qualified to wear the label “history” is the most accurate definition there has been of this word.When the English first embraced history (the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the word came into common use sometime in the 14th century), they too accepted that truth was not a prerequisite for a narrative of events.
So in its early form, history was just “story” with “hi” in the front. Only in the late 15th century did it become associated with a set of recorded events presumed to be true, and thence a subject taught in schools.
This is where all the trouble started. From the youthful, matey “Hi, Story”, history grew up into a stuffy old uncle who claimed to be the arbiter of objective truth. And that, as we all know, is impossible.
For all the reasons stated above, we can’t say: “Throughout history people have argued about history.” We can, however, say: “Ever since history mistakenly came to be seen as an infallible account of what really happened, people have argued about it.”Even when it is accepted that any retelling of the past is shaped by the views and objectives of whoever is doing the telling, the argument still rages over what parts of history deserve to be given precedence in, for instance, a school syllabus.
History does not relate whether a sound measure of historical significance has ever been agreed upon in any country in the world at any time in the history of arguments about history, but then history would not be able to relate such a thing even if it had happened, because history does not relate anything. People relate history.
I do not envy those who have to make decisions about the history curriculum that will be most beneficial to pupils. But I really do hope that the phrase “throughout history” is entirely banned from all history books.