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Laslett: The World we have Lost: Language

Laslett’s style has been called elegant, though students might have difficulties with it. There is none of the rhetorical flourish of the great narrative historians; indeed, his most vivid language comes in the very passage which he is saying no longer applies. He also employs a certain amount of euphemism, or at least technical language, to refer to things that could have been referred to more directly. For example, ‘uncontrollable economic vicissitude’ is a rather roundabout way of describing periods of severe food shortages and dire poverty, which is what it is referring to.

Laslett’s technical language serves an important purpose here. This is a book based on extensive and meticulous research, much of it quantitative. Laslett is employing the sort of ultra-cautious language, unwilling to be drawn any further than the evidence strictly allows, that we might associate with scientists or mathematicians, many of whose techniques Laslett has appropriated for his research. Note, for example, that he does not claim that no-one starved, nor that famine was unknown; rather, he says that ‘near famine’ was a ‘relative rarity’ and that outright starvation is notable by its ‘virtual absence’. This cautious use of language enhances the authority with which he writes and lends him an air of clinical detachment and objectivity.

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