Plantation

A word whose meanings we all know.  The larger issue, however, is what definition comes to mind, and if the most common thought of meaning has negative connotations, should we continue to use it?

This issue was raised in the New York Times yesterday in an article about the formal name of Rhode Island, which is the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.  Several politicians are pushing for the name to be updated, because of the slavery connotations of the word plantation.  Others dismiss the complaints arguing the use of the word comes from a different meaning altogether.  I am going to stay out of the debate, because I don’t see it as a big deal on either side, but the history of the word is interesting.

Look up plantation in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the first definitions all deal with the physical act of planting something into the ground.  It is the obvious and original meaning of the word.

Definition four in the O.E.D. is a colony.  The idea is that individuals were lifted up from one part of the world and transplanted in another.  The action of moving to the new world was seen as planting oneself into new soil.  This sort of metaphor was quite common in the language of early American puritans.

It is not until definition five that the most commonly used images of the word come into play (interestingly enough this is definition number one in the Oxford American Dictionary).  The idea is that on a large farm, there is much plantation going on, so it was an appopriate name.  A large farm also needed a lot of hands, and it was easier to enslave them rather than pay them.  Plantation very quickly became associated with slavery.

This is not dissimilar to the Spanish settlement word encomienda.  The word means “commission.”  Because these commissions consistently took the form of the right to force the Indians into labor, the word becomes entwined with the horror of slavery.

Obviously, Rhode Island took the word plantation from the historical meaning of a colony.  In the eyes of all Americans, however, a different definition comes to mind.  Should then, we retire a historical definition of a word when a more prevelant meaning comes about?

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