I am old enough to remember when my legal secretary became my legal assistant. I can also remember clearly when waiters and waitresses became "servers." Now, it seems that the venerable old term "genealogy" is undergoing the same politically correct make-over in favor of "family history."
When my secretary became a legal assistant, nothing about her job changed, not even her salary. I have no idea if she was happier or felt more important when she went to her job everyday thinking she was now a "legal assistant" and not a mere secretary. This shift in terms is more than just a fashion or trend, it goes much deeper than that. We may joke about how garbage collectors became sanitary engineers, but this whole process is part of larger changes in our society, some of which are neither good nor desirable. One of the more visible socially and politically charged associations with some of these changes has to do with gender roles and perception. The change from waiter and waitress to server is a prime example. But the term "secretary" did not historically infer that the person was either male or female. There is a perception here that changing the label will somehow change the job.
I read a statement recently that clearly stated that family history was important because we learned the stories of our ancestors and not "just genealogy" finding names and dates. I have been doing genealogy for a really long time and that is exactly what I thought I was doing: learning the stories of my ancestors. But apparently, all of the history I have found doesn't count anymore because the term "genealogy" is now going the way of secretary and waiter and I am a genealogist.
But there is a much larger issue here. Genealogy has never been accepted as a valid part of the discipline of history. After all, history is important and genealogy is merely names and dates. Excuse me, but I thought all history was merely genealogy. I always thought those people who were only interested in the elite; presidents, rulers, kings etc. were the ones missing the boat. I thought learning about my family was important not just because they participated in some event considered important or were rich, famous or called themselves nobility.
I had the same thing happen to me when I was finishing my Masters Degree in Linguistics. One of the things I had focused on was the issue of "language universals" or those parts of language that are common to all humans. In other words, what makes language human? I wrote several papers pointing out the similarities between different language structures in unrelated languages. One day, one of my professors sat down with me and explained that at that time, referring to language universals was "politically incorrect," that wasn't the term he used, but that is what he meant. He told me that if I persisted in my interest in "language universals" I would never be able to get a job in the field of linguistics. In the end, that discussion was a major factor in why I ended up being a lawyer rather than a university professor. On that day, the world lost a linguist and gained another trial lawyer. In some cases, perception is more important than reality.
So should I just fold up my interest in genealogy and put it away in a drawer somewhere and quietly go about becoming a "family historian?" Maybe I should take up the politically acceptable pursuit of golf or shuffleboard? After all, aren't I entitled to an "active retirement?" Does that mean I have to change all my business cards and my email address? What I see as the danger here is not merely a change in terminology. There is something more important going on. It is the denigration of the basic function of genealogy; the verification of names, dates and locations, that is at issue. There is a not-too-subtle implication that you can do family history without worrying about such mundane things as names, dates and places. So let's abandon the term "genealogy" so people will be more willing to relate to and discover their ancestors.
Let me clarify, so there is no misunderstanding. I do not mind the term "family history" at all. What I do mind is the implication that somehow genealogists are not part of the "family history" community and that family history can be accomplished without resort to all that "genealogy stuff." There is a further implication that family history somehow magically appears; that stories and photos will continue to be available without the activity of doing all that stuffy, undesirable, old-people associated research. Rather than celebrating all the older participants in genealogy, it is as if the whole idea of "genealogy" is invalidated because its adherents are mostly older.
After all, young people have all those computer skills that automatically qualifies them to do complex historical research. No, I am not "down on the youth." Neither do I feel that I am insulting their intelligence when I point out that genealogy requires certain skills that are generally lacking in the younger population as a whole. But I do think it is time that genealogists push back some and help those who are not so inclined to accept the fact that historical research, no matter what you call it, is a complicated and challenging pursuit. There are those who do it well and those who do not. There are those whose only interest is names and dates, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Don't make genealogy a bad and politically unacceptable term in your zeal to promote family history. You might just lose the very thing you are seeking. What is the activity you are trying promote by abandoning the term "genealogy?"