Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon by Carol Gluck and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

Reg Wiebe


Gluck, Carol and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, eds. Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. 352 pp. Print.


Carol Gluck and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon emerges from the aftermath of the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997. Financial aid for countries such as Thailand and Indonesia depended on governments achieving “transparency” and enforcing the “rule of law,” which were, in fact, standards set by the rich and powerful members of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (4). The imposition and spread of words such as these mirrored the growing vocabulary of globalization, which amplified and enlarged other terms, such as human rights, civil society and the environment. Inspired in part by Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1985) and its recent updates, including the Keywords for a Different Kind of Globalization series, Words in Motion demonstrates that the movement and trajectories of powerful global words is nothing new. The title of the collection of essays signals the volume’s project of tracing the social and political life of words – “specific words in specific places at specific times” (3) – with an eye to their practical and public effect, particularly in Asian and Middle Eastern societies at the turn of the twentieth century.

Though the essays share similar interests, no single narrative unifies them. The volume functions as an anthology of similar investigations into the social and political impact of words rather than acting as a dictionary. The collection, clearly written and structured, is very modular, with essays primarily tracing specific words in various social and historical contexts. The collection is divided into six sections: Words with Shadows, Words That Expand, Words Unspoken, Words That Cover, Fear Words and Words That Set Standards. The collection generally avoids etymology or tracing the history of ideas. Though they travel the globe and appear in many national and local inflections, words like democracy, tradition, civilization and rights are “often too abstract and discursive” to permit entry into “less debated but more embedded practices of social life” (4). Some of the words under discussion – good governance and indigenous peoples – are neologisms in their respective contexts, imports that have been translated and adapted to meet local needs. Others, such as security and secularism, have become prominent as they acquire new usages. The organization of the essays into categories represents the editors’ attempts to provide a sense of the patterns that appear when words move. None of the essayists are as interested in genealogy as Williams is in Keywords, but all are committed to exploring questions of culture and colonization without homogenizing the globe.


Words With Shadows

Itty Abraham’s “Segurança/Security in Brazil and the United States” and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “Adat/Indigenity: Indigenity in Motion,” describe the travel of words that are defined by symbiotic companions. Polar opposites (insecurity for security, custom and tradition for indigenous) underline and impel these words. “Segurança” investigates the passing of the National Security Act of 1947 in the U.S. and the establishment of the Escola Superior de Guerra in Brazil, and their relationships to the distinction between defense and national security. “Adat” compares the translation of the Arabian ada, which refers to ordinary practices of habits not addressed in Islamic law, and indigenous, which emerged from the Latin for beget and has connotations of origin. This section is one of the book’s strongest, in that it successfully traces the shifting social and political life of words as well as their histories of identification and alliance.

Words That Expand

The words discussed in Mona Abaza’s “Ada/Custom in the Middle East and Southeast Asia” and Carol Gluck’s “Sekinin/Responsibility in Modern Japan” migrated from a legal context into a social one. Abaza’s discussion of ada centers on intellectual debates in Egypt surrounding the expansion of Islamic law in the Muslim world and its relationship with customary practices. Gluck’s engagement with sekinin, a largely modern word dating from the eighteenth century, follows the word’s movement from the struggle to render Henry Wheaton’s Elements of International Law (1836) into Japanese to its present position in the vernacular. She examines its gradually increasing prominence by examining its uses in different social dialects: personal responsibility, responsibility in war, responsibility in politics, and social responsibility. Both essays deal with how language shapes the way cultures imagine cross-border unity.

Words Unspoken

Driss Maghroui’s “Ilmaniyya, Laïcité, Sécularisme/Secularism in Morocco” and Alan Tansman’s “Saburaimu/Sublime: A Japanese Word and its Political Afterlife” demonstrate how words can shape political institutions and ideology by their absence. Maghroui explains how the interplay between ilmaniyya, laïcité and sécularisme reflects Morocco’s cosmopolitan heritage and, more importantly, its national and cultural debates. The three words – initially shunned by Moroccan nationalists in the 1910s and 20s but gradually returning to use in recent debates, particularly since the late 1990s – are best understood as a cluster of affinity words and related concepts that constitute a discourse on secularity, science, democracy, and whether or not those ideas can be understood as inherently Islamic or only as colonial imports. Tansman’s discussion of saburaimu in Japan traces its entry into Japanese literary and philosophical discussions in the 1890s through German and British Romanticism to its rejection by the purveyors of political propaganda in the 1930s.

Words That Cover

Seteney Shami’s “Aqalliyya/Minority in Modern Egyptian Discourse” and Claudia Koonz’s “Hijab/Headscarf: A Political Journey” investigate the uses of words in political debates that locate and discriminate by religion and ethnicity. Shami suggests that the use of aqalliyya is particularly applicable to Egyptian Christians, known as Copts, but to neither Nubians nor Sudanese. Its evolution during Egypt’s long transition from empire to nation signals the ongoing debates on international human rights. The fact that hijab would find a niche in French or European language was not a foregone conclusion, and Koonz examines the varying vernacular language for “woman’s covering” – chador, abaya, khimar, niqab and burqa – and the inadequacy of the French voile and foulard. She identifies two particularly intense debates (in the late 1980s and the presidential elections of 2002) to discuss the competing understandings of French universalism and the “Muslim question.”

Fear Words

This section – “Injury: Incriminating Words and Imperial Power” by Lydia H. Lin, “Conjuración/Conspiracy in the Philippine Revolution of 1896” by Vincente L. Rafael, and “Terrorism: State Sovereignty and Militant Politics in India” by Partha Chatterjee – is the volume’s most theoretical and unified. The smuggling of words, such as thug from India, demonstrates how language transmitted imperial objectives throughout Asia. Lin argues that the language used to describe China’s Opium Wars reflects modern theories of subjectivity. Rafael follows the translation of conspiracy into Spanish by the colonial state to describe emanations of nationalist sentiment in the Philippines through the lens of secret organizations and ritual speech. Chatterjee explores the development of the word terrorism and its predecessors – anarchism and revolution – and how such a word can be used to distinguish phenomena that might otherwise be regarded as part of a continuum.

Words That Set Standards

The final section is the closest to the book’s origins in the Asian Economic Crisis and the imposition of words upon a society is discussed by all three essays: Huri Islamoglu’s “Komysion/Commission and Kurul/Board: Words That Rule,” Craig J. Reynolds’s “Chumchon/Community in Thailand,” and Kasian Tejapira’s “Thammarat/Good Governance in Globalizing Thailand.” Islamoglu follows the gradual replacement of komysion with kurul to show how new patterns of governance emerged in Turkey to combat the entrenched bureaucracies that the Turkish government thought impeded integration with the European Union. Reynold’s essay on chumchon engages with the history of ideas more than any other in the volume. It locates its discussion firmly in the emergence of the word in three discrete areas: the struggles to translate Marxist thought in the 1940s, the language of development couched in American aid programs in the late 1950s and 1960s, and the work of economic historians and NGOs in the 1980s and 1990s. Tejapira examines the reincarnation of the IMF’s term good governance as thammarat by Thai intellectuals in order to carve out space for the interpretation of the term that would provide some autonomy from IMF meanings and policy imperatives.


The general lack of continuity and the anthology format allows the essays to explore a wide range of topics. The strong correlation of methodology among the work collected here suggests certain narrative arcs about the nature of postcolonial and transnational studies, but the modular structure frequently isolates the essays. The six categories designed to describe each word’s mode of travel often dismisses and flattens complexity, and the collection might benefit from a conclusion. Nevertheless, the discussions generated by the volume and its various negotiations are fascinating and important to the discussion of transnational and global cultures.




Reg Wiebe is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. He researches historical fiction, particularly Westerns and the work of Canadian writers.



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