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HD: Anglo-Saxon
Posted: 12 September 2019 12:02 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I’m posting this in response to an ongoing debate among academic medievalists regarding the propriety of our continued use of the term Anglo-Saxon. It is not the site’s usual fare, but it is probably of interest to those who frequent the site.

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Posted: 12 September 2019 05:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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That’s very interesting. I would never have thought, and have no experience of the use, that Anglo-Saxon was a racial descriptor these days, except in the antiquated style of “the Irish race”, “Italian race”, etc. As a white guy of (mostly)Irish and Bavarian descent I have never thought of Anglo-Saxon as anything more than shorthand for ‘British’ when speaking of modern folks, and that the American term WASP was used much more broadly than the specifics of the initialism warranted.

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Posted: 12 September 2019 08:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I am posting this summary to correct some misinformation about the term Anglo-Saxon, its history, and its present day usage that is currently circulating. Contrary to what others have said, the term is overwhelmingly used as a contemporary racial or ethnic label rather than as a reference to the historical, pre-Conquest period.

But can’t we use the same argument for African-American, Hispanic or Latino? 

Michael Jackson’s grotesque metamorphosis is the most celebrated and egregious but by no means the only example of this trend. But the ability to reinvent ourselves physically raises the old question of authenticity [...] most aesthetic procedures are designed to enable the patient to pass as something he or she does not feel, whether it be younger or sexier or more Anglo-Saxon than accidents of nature and birth have determined

Not only does the author of this piece use Anglo-Saxon as an adjective to describe ethnic features, she connects them with Jackon’s cosmetic surgeries with their racial implications. She equates “Anglo-Saxon” physiognomy with the epitome of beauty and non-whites who attempt to achieve this are “grotesque.” This passage is by no means unusual.

There is more pertinent information in that section of the piece which you submitted. The entire article is exclusively about cosmetic surgery.  Below is the entire paragraph:

But the ease and acceptability of the procedures have an unexpected side effect. Today the belief holds sway that if something can be fixed, it should be fixed. Whereas once a patient might have undergone a single procedure, now the tendency is two or three or an entire makeover. Michael Jackson’s grotesque metamorphosis is the most celebrated and egregious but by no means the only example of this trend. But the ability to reinvent ourselves physically raises the old question of authenticity, which in turn redefines the relationship between psychology and surgery. While patients seeking transsexual operations speak of bringing their bodies into harmony with their psychological selves, most aesthetic procedures are designed to enable the patient to pass as something he or she does not feel, whether it be younger or sexier or more Anglo-Saxon than accidents of nature and birth have determined. But at what cost do we deny ourselves? If melon-perfect breasts mean decreased sensitivity, a common side effect of augmentation, does the new body signify heightened sexuality or diminished health? Does a fresh face engender a transformed consciousness or merely give the outwardly altered individual more to hide? Some women who have never told their husbands about their rhinoplasties live in fear that their secret will be exposed in the noses of their children.

I think your interpretation is slightly misguided. She was specifically referring to Michael Jackson’s “grotesque metamorphosis”—the “grotesque” effect of his numerous plastic surgeries. She did not affirm or imply that non-whites who attempt a face transformation through plastic surgery are grotesque. Where does the author equate Anglo-Saxon physiognomy with beauty and where does she imply that non-whites are grotesque? Furthermore, her reference, “...whether it be younger or sexier or more Anglo-Saxon...”, was attributed to transexuals whose aesthetic procedures don’t necessarily make them feel younger or sexier or more Anglo-Saxon. She was not referring to looking younger or more Anglo-Saxon, nor does her statement imply that Anglo-Saxon is the epitome of beauty.

The only racial implications, or interpretations, might be that Jackson wanted to look more white. It’s conjecture based on his transformation, but I don’t think it has any relevancy or connection to the author’s article.

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Posted: 12 September 2019 10:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Dave, are those your statistics on usage, and if not where do you get them from?  In either case, how were they obtained?

As a white guy of (mostly) Bavarian and Irish descent I have never thought of Anglo-Saxon as anything more than shorthand for ‘British’ when speaking of modern folks

As an Englishwoman with a degree in the archaeology of early medieval Britain, inevitably my apprehension and usage of the term are weighted. Recently I have occasionally encountered it in the far-right ‘let’s kick out all the immigrants’ sense (which always makes me want to reply ‘Have you considered the danger that you might find yourself deported and dumped in East Sweden or Belgium?’) but before that, in terms of modern-day applications, apart from its being a component in WASP I’m only aware of the way the French use les anglo-saxons as a portmanteau term for the UK and the USA whenever they feel we’re ganging up on them.

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Posted: 13 September 2019 05:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Some background: the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, a group that encompasses most of the academics who study pre-Conquest England from a variety of fields (history, literature, archaeology, etc.) is at this moment conducting a vote on whether or not to change its name. This field itself rose out of and in concert with nineteenth-century ideas of scientific racism that asserted the superiority of the Germanic race, and the early development of the academic field was explicitly to establish an intellectual basis for this supremacy and to further nationalist ideals. While scholars today do not have this as an aim, vestiges of these early racist ideas still permeate our methodologies and establish the scope of what we study.

There are also other issues at play: the organization has traditionally been unfriendly to early-career scholars and those without institutional support (independent researchers, adjunct faculty, etc.); its membership has been unwelcoming, or even hostile, to scholars of color and the field is overwhelmingly white; it is the only academic medieval organization without a sexual harassment policy, and it nominated a particular senior and “distinguished” scholar who is a serial sexual harasser to its governing board. This vote on the name change is being accompanied by much sturm and drang, as one might expect, and much more seriously, one of the medievalists of color who participated in the online conversation has received a death threat. Those arguing for the name change recognize that the change will not solve these problems, but it is the lowest bar, a first step toward doing so.

I have been working on a paper on the history and current use of Anglo-Saxon for two years that has passed through multiple rounds of peer review and is currently awaiting publication. One member of the governing board opposed to the name change circulated a paper that contained misinformation about the term’s use. I wrote this summary of my longer paper to counter that. The editor and I have asked the publisher if there is a way to get an early release of the full paper. (Academic publishing is not geared for quick responses.)

As to the data, it comes from the corpora listed in the summary. I examined each appearance of Anglo-Saxon and the acronym WASP (several thousand instances) and categorized them as one of three senses:
1) if the use is in reference to pre-Conquest England or is reference to present-day language that is plain or profane, I categorized it as historical
2) if the use is in reference to an individual, physiognomic features, heritage or genetics, or used in contrast with another ethnic group, I categorized it as explicitly ethno-racial
3) if the use is in reference to contemporary politics, economics, or culture without explicit reference to the factors in #2, I categorized it as socio-cultural. (Many of the socio-cultural uses can legitimately be viewed as ethno-racial, but they aren’t explicitly so.)

The data is all from mainstream media. It doesn’t contain the rhetoric of white supremacists (except insofar as that is quoted in news articles, which is pretty rare.) Ethno-racial doesn’t necessarily mean racist, and it certainly doesn’t mean white supremacist. The author of the cosmetic surgery piece, for example, obviously did not intend to make a racist statement, but she used the term in a racial context by equating Anglo-Saxon with physical appearance of a 21st century individual. While it was not her intent, many can legitimately take the statement as racist (as in judging whether or not a term is offensive, whether or not a term is racist depends on its reception, not the intent of the speaker).

As an Englishwoman with a degree in the archaeology of early medieval Britain, inevitably my apprehension and usage of the term are weighted.

Exactly. When evaluating the use of Anglo-Saxon (or any word, for that matter), all of us are subject to our particular biases. Those of us who work in the field will inevitably encounter the term more often in the historical sense than the general public. Those of us who are white will often glide past the racial implications of the term that are obvious to people of color. And as I pointed out, the historical use is much more common in Britain than the rest of the world, so those who are British are going to be less likely to see the racial implications that others in the rest of the world do. That’s why I focused on data and used precise definitions in my categorization.

But can’t we use the same argument for African-American, Hispanic or Latino?

No. Unlike Anglo-Saxon, these terms have never been used to frame a specific historical period. Furthermore, these terms are not generally used to assert the supremacy of a particular race or ethnic group, as Anglo-Saxon has throughout its history and into the present-day.

[ Edited: 13 September 2019 05:23 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 13 September 2019 11:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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The University of Illinois Press has given permission to post a pre-publication copy of the paper. The pdf is available here.

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Posted: 13 September 2019 06:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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from the end of your paper:

The field of medieval studies and the subfield of those of us who work on pre-Conquest
materials are at a crossroads where we must decide whether or not—and if so, how—to use the
term Anglo-Saxon. As we engage in this discussion, we need to take stock of the historical use of
the term and in particular to determine whether or not, as some claim, the term is justified by the
materials we study. As demonstrated above, this is definitely not the case: Anglo-Saxon was not
used by pre-Conquest peoples to describe themselves. Regardless of how we as a field
collectively decide to address the continued use of Anglo-Saxon, our choices should be grounded
not only in an understanding of how the term was used in the past, but also with knowledge of
how the term is used and understood in the present day by our colleagues in other fields and by
the public. Do we wish to use a term that for a substantial percentage of the population serves as
a marker of white identity? It is difficult to imagine a principled and well-grounded argument for
doing so. 

Do you come to a conclusion? I’d love to know.

[ Edited: 13 September 2019 06:40 PM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 13 September 2019 07:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I think my position on the topic is pretty clear—see the last sentence.

It’s a bit understated as I’m really aiming for a traditionalist audience who don’t take kindly to change.

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Posted: 14 September 2019 05:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I have never thought of Anglo-Saxon as anything more than shorthand for ‘British’

Longhand, I’d call it.

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Posted: 14 September 2019 05:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I have never thought of Anglo-Saxon as anything more than shorthand for ‘British’ when speaking of modern folks, and that the American term WASP was used much more broadly than the specifics of the initialism warranted.

What Languagehat said. ;)

Anglo-Saxon has a number of different ethnic senses when used as a contemporary reference. Most narrowly, it means English. A bit more broadly, it means British (including Irish, Welsh, and Scots). More expansively, it means white. And most expansively, it is a reference to Anglophone countries (usually the UK and US, but also sometimes encompassing Canada, Australia, New Zealand), with an implicit connotation of whiteness, but really more of a political and cultural distinction than an ethnic one.

What you say about WASP is absolutely true. What counts as “whiteness” has shifted over the decades. In early twentieth century US, Irish-Americans were not considered white. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Italian-Americans were considered only quasi-white. The KKK was once almost as virulently anti-Catholic as it was anti-black. Now, both Italians and Irish would fully qualify as “white” with no dissension. The same is true of WASP. The acronym has become more expansive in its denotation.

In my understanding of critical race studies (I’m a neophyte in the field, so I’m open to correction), race is considered to be about how power is distributed among different groups in a society. The definitions of those groups shifts over time and territory. Our current, American conception of race is rooted in nineteenth-century scientific racism, a thoroughly discredited set of ideas but one whose influence persists in our thinking.

This is getting a bit beyond the ambit of linguistics, but it’s important in understanding the denotations and connotations of these words and how they are used.

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Posted: 15 September 2019 03:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Those who use the term in “Anglo-Saxon” studies should be aware that most people, including most academics in other fields, do not use or understand the term in the way we do. The term is generally viewed as a synonym for “white.”

Not here it isn’t. I understand Anglo-Saxon in its historical sense. I’ve never even considered that the term refers to ethnic identity so I leave that assumption to others. Nor am I sure what an Anglo-Saxonist is - this is a new one to me.

In 1960s South Africa, people were referred to officially as either white or non-white, and politely as Europeans or Africans, thereby giving both words racial overtones. Oddly, “European” could also encompass the Chinese, whereas the Japanese and other Asians weren’t included.

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Posted: 15 September 2019 05:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Not here it isn’t. I understand Anglo-Saxon in its historical sense. I’ve never even considered that the term refers to ethnic identity so I leave that assumption to others.

The historical sense is the dominant one in the UK, but it is not the only one. Some 25% of the uses of Anglo-Saxon in British writing and speech are as a contemporary identity label. Your understanding of the term is in line with the most common sense, but a categorical “not here it isn’t” is incorrect.

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Posted: 15 September 2019 06:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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It is correct in the sense that right here, where I am now, I understand Anglo-Saxon to be a historical term. That was my meaning.

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Posted: 18 September 2019 04:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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FYI, ISAS voted to change its name. Now comes the hard part, deciding on the new one and restructuring and reorienting the organization to be more open and inclusive.

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Posted: 18 September 2019 05:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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languagehat - 14 September 2019 05:02 AM

I have never thought of Anglo-Saxon as anything more than shorthand for ‘British’

Longhand, I’d call it.

puts me in mind of one of my favorite Gracie Allen jokes. “My name is Grace Allen, they call me ‘Gracie’ for short.”

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Posted: 18 September 2019 07:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Oecolampadius - 18 September 2019 05:55 AM

languagehat - 14 September 2019 05:02 AM
I have never thought of Anglo-Saxon as anything more than shorthand for ‘British’

Longhand, I’d call it.

puts me in mind of one of my favorite Gracie Allen jokes. “My name is Grace Allen, they call me ‘Gracie’ for short.”

Point taken, although you’ve never seen my handwriting :)

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