A Wikipedia search for “keyword” directs you to a disambiguation page with half a dozen entries. Among them are “Keyword (linguistics), word which occurs in a text more often than we would expect to occur by chance alone,” and “Keyword (computer programming), word or identifier that has a particular meaning to the programming language.” The last link leads to “Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, 1976 non-fiction book by Raymond Williams.” Click on it and you’ll learn that Keywords is a compendium of micro-essays that the “Welsh Marxist academic” wrote, exploring “the history of more than a hundred words that are familiar and yet confusing,” like “Art; Bureaucracy; Culture; Educated; Management; Masses; Nature; Originality; Radical; Society; Welfare; Work.”
Click further and you’ll discover that, although Williams had to wait nearly 20 years to publish Keywords, the book was a hit. Although it’s deeply erudite, the author wears his learning lightly; Williams’s prose has a spring in its step. In 1976, the radical left was about as powerful as it would ever be in postwar Britain, and, much like their counterparts in the United States, British New Left intellectuals were increasingly focused on cultural questions, including questions about representation and language. The concise histories that Keywords offered of concepts like “society”—discussing not just their origins, but also how people had wielded them to shape their times—appealed to readers living through the political clashes of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher and the Tories were setting out to prove that “society” did not exist.
A revised and expanded version of Keywords appeared in 1983, and Williams was at work on another when he died in 1988. Within the academy, its popularity has endured, and admirers have undertaken projects in the book’s honor. In 2005, Blackwell published New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Now, 10 years on, Oxford University Press has published a handsome new edition of Keywords. Its gray-and-lime-green cover features a tangle of scrawled words of various sizes that drift and overlap one another, creating the impression of a commonplace book or a palimpsest.
In the foreword, the professor and filmmaker Colin MacCabe stresses how much Keywords draws from the work of earlier philologists—particularly the mix of amateurs and academics who compiled the Oxford English Dictionary between 1857 and 1928. Other and older antecedents leap to mind: the French Littré, published in 30 parts over the 1860s and ’70s; the dictionary that Samuel Johnson assembled in the mid-18th century; not to mention the parodies that played on the popularity of these compendiums with the aspiring and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie, like Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.
The era of such projects seems ever more remote. In 2010, Oxford University Press announced that it would most likely not print a physical version of the OED again. Two years later, Encyclopaedia Britannica followed suit: it, too, would shift to publishing exclusively online. (And if you search Wikipedia for the word “Wikipedia,” you can read about a study that found that the free online encyclopedia was almost as reliable—and far more extensive and up-to-date—than its print rivals, and that Encyclopaedia Britannica has contested these findings, to no effect.)