There’s something I want to add to my piece on Mary Beth Norton over on the NRO homepage today. It may seem a small thing, and it would have unnecessarily lengthened the article, but it may be important in its own way. When Norton says, in her New York Times op-ed, that “constructed” and “interpreted” mean the same thing, she’s abusing the language. Whether by ignorance or by design, Norton and other academics who treat these terms as equivalent are committing a sneaky back-formation (William Safire, call your office). The nouns “construction” and “interpretation” are synonyms in certain contexts, as every legal scholar knows. But in this case, “construction” is the noun connected to the verb “to construe,” not the verb “to construct.”
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “construct” as a synonym for “interpret” is an obsolete use of the former, dead since the late seventeenth century (and probably rare while it lived), while “construe” is alive and well as such a synonym from about 1400 to the present. This is reflected in accepted usage today; it’s hard even now to imagine a judge asking a lawyer, or a teacher asking a student, how he would “construct” a passage in a certain text, if interpretation is what is asked for. The question would be “how do you construe it?”
What difference does it make if Norton and others want to resurrect “construct” as a revived synonm for “interpret”? Just this: Everyone today understands “construct” as “make, build, form, frame, erect,” and that may be just the muddled equivalence our postmodern historians desire. If “construct” is what we do with history, we are disrespecting the past—as when Norton effectively denies that facts have meaning until historians like herself supply it. If history is to be “construed” rather than “constructed”—if it is truly being “interpreted”—we are embarked on the proper historical enterprise of discerning, and perhaps debating, what is the real significance of past events, deeds, and words.
I think the Florida legislature knew exactly what it was doing when it embraced “factual” history and rejected “constructed” history. It wasn’t ignoring the necessity of interpretation. It was insisting on more respect for the past than appears to be fashionable among the trendiest historians today.