Olbertson Explores History of Speech in ‘Dreadful Word’

New book from Alma College professor focuses on ‘politeness agenda’ of 18th-century Massachusetts.

ALMA — Lawmakers and courts in 18th-century Massachusetts prosecuted and punished speech deemed to be transgressive, taking their cues from conduct and courtesy manuals that were prevalent at the time and upholding a social order influenced by the British empire.

Exploration of this fascinating evolution over time is the subject of a new book by Kristin Olbertson, “The Dreadful Word: Speech Crime and Polite Gentlemen in Massachusetts, 1690-1776,” which was published in March 2022 by Cambridge University Press.

In “The Dreadful Word,” Olbertson argues that as Massachusetts became more economically and politically enmeshed with England, colonists increasingly criminalized speech that was impolite in addition to speech that was ungodly.

“Since I was an undergraduate, I’ve been interested in the law and people’s lives, and how people can shape the law,” said Olbertson, associate professor of history and American studies and pre-law program coordinator at Alma College. “I’m also interested in learning about language itself and how words can change meaning over time.

“While studying language and law in the 18th century, I realized there was a major shift in the reasons for people being concerned about speech, and that those concerns — that politeness agenda — was being imported into criminal law. It really was a people-driven movement to change laws.”

In 17th century Massachusetts, Olbertson explained, some examples of speech that could get a person in trouble were being disrespectful of authority, gossiping and talking out-of-turn in church. People accused of speech offenses were tried in both secular and religious spaces; secular trials often took place in taverns, because most counties did not have a purpose-built courthouse at the time.

After Massachusetts became a royal colony in 1691, political and cultural power flowed more from England than previously. In some cases regarding behavior, advice and etiquette books took precedence over the Bible.

“At a certain point in time, people started being prosecuting for language not because it offended God, but because it offended people,” Olbertson said. “This shift is coming from the top down in society — the elite, the genteel, the ones who write the laws — and the effect of this was inflected on certain groups of people much more intensely than others.”

Doing research for the book was a trip back in time. Olbertson traveled to Boston, home of the Massachusetts Archives. At the Archives, she studied court proceedings recorded on bundles of paper, folded in three and tied with a red ribbon, all handwritten, some 300 years old.

At the time the records were produced, Olbertson said, many different types of cases were heard consecutively, regardless of their subject matter. This occasionally made parsing through records to find cases of criminal speech very challenging. Handwriting was another issue. In some cases, she said, the judges and clerks wrote clearly and legibly, but in others, they did not.

“I looked through nine counties in Massachusetts, all of the records that survived,” Olbertson said. “There were more than one thousand speech prosecutions over the course of a century, which is more than I expected to find. To take all of that data and process it over time was an incredibly time-consuming task.”

The book, Olbertson’s first, is estimated to have been written over the course of 15 years, in 15-minute increments, in “cars, planes, hotels and in the stands at Little League games,” as well as during leave time and sabbaticals. Now that it is published, Olbertson said, she feels it still highlights issues of profound relevance and interests of today.

“These issues of speech, controls over speech and who gets to decide those controls are issues that people continue to puzzle out,” she said. “I think that looking at the ways that people have approached these issues in a historical context can give us useful tools for how we might approach similar questions in our modern time.”

Story published on April 19, 2022