I’m reading a paper and staring at the word “lacunae” on page 4.  I think over the past ten years or so, I have changed from someone who would use the word “lacunae” when “gaps” worked just as well to someone for whom seeing “lacunae” in a paper makes him rolls his eyes a little bit.  In this and some other ways I could name, I suspect sociology liked the old me better.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

26 thoughts on “interstitial”

  1. My favorite, by far, is “disambiguate”. At that point, I gave up on cutting a break for people who obscure their meaning by using ridiculous words. But a close second, loved by administrators, is “prioritize”.


  2. The only reason I even know the meaning of the word “lacuna” is because I read it on a sociologist’s blog and had to look it up.

    Not that I don’t have my own pet words that are big and unnecessary. They’re like security blankets.

    Lacuna just sounds like the name of a Disney Fairy. But then, I do have a 6-year old.


  3. “Sequelae,” I still like.

    I think the book _Dreaming in Code_, which I devoured recently and should write a post about, said that the word “disambiguate” came into wider use because of its utility for computer programming.

    One of the people on the interactive fiction Usenet group is working on a game called “Blue Lacuna.”


  4. I’m a fan of interstitial. Fredric Thrasher’s classic gang study, wherein he wrote of the importance of studying groups, those that sit between social organizations, described them as ‘interstitial:’

    …pertaining to spaces that intervene between one thing and another. In nature foreign matter tends to collect and cake in every crack, crevice, and cranny—interstices. There are also fissures and breaks in the structure of social organization. The gang may be regarded as an interstitial element in the framework of society, and gangland as an interstitial region in the layout of the city ([1927]1963: 20).

    Thrasher goes on to claim that this emphasis was “probably the most significant concept of the study” (ibid.).


  5. I like the selective non-translation of words. Like doxa. Even “habitus” gets under my skin. Yes, yes, I know it means something that is not quite habits, and not quite dispositions, sometimes one thing and sometimes another. But here’s a thought: instead of hiding behind ambiguity how about you pick the word you mean? And on those rare cases when you actually are straddling the line between habits and dispositions, use “habitus”. Otherwise, stop being a ponce and clearly state what you mean. If you can’t, maybe you don’t have anything to say. Diatribe done.


  6. @Shamus: I was once strongly advised not to use the word “authentic,” since people would obviously think I was referring to Heidegger. So now I can’t ever use the word “authentic?” Ever? I’m not even a philosopher, for Pete’s sake. This is not exactly what you were talking about, but, you know, related.

    In general it irritates me how much time we must spend arguing over the meaning of ill-defined terminology.


  7. Kieran’s comment #11 makes my top 10 all-time favourite comments.

    I noticed that my natural propensity for terminological obfuscation diminished when I began to speak, read and write a different language than my mother tongue on a daily basis.


  8. But more seriously: the problem is that language isn’t precise…. without wanting to excuse “lacunae,” on which I take no position, “habitus” is theoretically useful precisely because it isn’t any of those specific, English, overly precise definitions.

    I see your Heidegger, raise you a Habermas, and cover with a Wittgenstein.


  9. Recently, I read a report by a research assistant that was filled with words of this sort. I was disgusted. Then I realized, hmm.. probably explains why he didn’t get into grad school.


  10. An analytic philosopher I am not, and would not want to be. And I agree with Andrew in that having non-precise language can be theoretically useful. However, it frustrates me when we hide behind that imprecision to suggest we’re saying something profound, when it’s quite mundane, or something new, when it’s quite old (the discussion of habits of the pragmatists comes to mind here).

    I’m someone who actually uses “habitus”. But the implication that big, hard, imprecise words is what makes us smart academics seems to me to get it all wrong. It’s much harder to do it the other way around: to be clear, concise, and present our ideas simply. I am reminded here, of something Erik Wright wrote in a preface to his book. He tells a story of what his mother, also and academic, told him, upon reading his work. I’m not getting it exactly right here, but it something like:

    Write clearly, so your critics will know why they disagree with you.

    I’ve always loved that advice.


  11. Oh, and one more thing: not to poke fun, Jeremy, but aren’t you the guy who had a list of words favorite words in his old blogs? Some were kinda like lacunae, no? Grandiloquent was one. I gather it no longer makes the cut?!?


  12. I have a paper under review and I used the word lacuna. Beware! I have a blind reviewer voodoo doll.

    Actually, I am pretty certain that Jeremy is not the reviewer on this paper, but I definitely hope that it doesn’t get rejected because I used this word.

    I’m completely on board with keeping language as simple and precise as possible, but no moreso than that.


  13. Oh, but you nay sayers, isn’t there bliss in locating the word that precisely captures an idea? I don’t mean a theoretical concept, either. I am talking about the sheer fun to be had in the meticulous use of the vocabulary at our disposal. Lacuna could be gap, yes, but liminal? Liminal is a gorgeously parsimonious way to convey a particular meaning.

    Oh, and how tragic is it when you don’t have enough synonyms at your disposal and have to write and article or book in which you have to use the same word or two over and over and over again? Those poor souls at org theory…

    “organization” as a noun doesn’t have nearly enough viable alternatives.


  14. “In this and some other ways I could name, I suspect sociology liked the old me better.”

    mr. ‘interstice’, i for one think the ‘older’ you is better too. ;-)


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