A "shy choice" spreads

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Nadia Bakri, "Impatient Protesters Convulse Syria as Russia Offers New Resolution", NYT 12/16/2011:

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group in London with networks of informants in Syria, said that at least 200,000 people went out in the city of Homs after Friday Prayer and called for the Arab League to interfere more aggressively to end bloodshed that, by the United Nations’ count, has killed more than 5,000 people.

This use of observatory is apparently an extension of the usual sense glossed by the OED as "A building or place set apart for, and equipped with instruments for making, observations of natural phenomena, esp. astronomical, meteorological, or geophysical ones. Also: an automatic or remotely controlled station for measuring and recording natural phenomena, esp. in space."

I first encountered a similar extended sense of the word observatory a few years ago, in a presentation by an anthropologist about the value of setting up "cultural observatories". At the time, I was somewhat puzzled about what a "cultural observatory" would mean in concrete terms. It's clear enough what sort of thing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights does, but what that anthropologist had in mind was presumably something different.

Last year, when the Culturomics guys chose to frame their efforts as "the Cultural Observatory at Harvard", my inner lexicographer registered another tick for this extended sense:

The Cultural Observatory at Harvard is working to enable the quantitative study of human culture across societies and across centuries.

Again, what they mean is clear, but it's probably not the same thing as what that anthropologist was talking about.

Anyhow, when I read about the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, I decided to try to figure out when and where this apparently-new usage of observatory began. According to Mark Schuster, "Informing Cultural Policy—Data, Statistics, and Meaning”, 2002:

The use of the word "observatory/observatoire" to describe a data gathering, monitoring, and information disseminating organization in any field appears to be a French innovation. Augustin Girard, former head of the Département des Études et de la Prospective of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, describes the deliberate choice of the word "observatoire" as a "shy" choice. The intended message was quite clear: This new institution was not being created to rule or control; rather, it would observe, monitor, and provide information passively. In his words, "We cannot agree on a center, but we can have an observatory. It is a pleasant name. An observatory is a place of negotiation, of interactivity. It does not deliver judgments."

Schuster notes that "My research identified some twenty cultural observatories with the word “observatory” in their names."  Many of the specific enterprises that Schuster names are now defunct, but looking around on the web, we can easily find e.g. The Budapest Observatory ("Regional Observatory on Financing Culture in East-Central Europe"), The Yorkshire Cultural Observatory, The ACP Cultural Observatory (for the "African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States"), l'Observatoire des Politique CulturellesThe Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, and The Canadian Cultural Observatory, among quite a few others.

As Schuster observes, these institutions are rather diverse:

In a strictly taxonomic sense, these observatories do not constitute a pure type. Instead, they combine a variety of hybrids of the different models under a common rubric. […]

Generally speaking, cultural observatories have come into being to serve as mediators in the process of bringing policy-relevant data and information to the attention of the field.

I was prepared to learn that the socio-cultural-political senses of observatory go back to the Englightenment and beyond, but in fact the usage seems to be a relatively recent one.

The earliest use of this sense  that I've found in English is from Cultural Policy in France, 1991, describing the "Research and Forecasting Department of the [French] Ministry of Culture" as a figurative social-science observatory:

The earliest use of this term in French that I've been able to find is also a figurative one, referring to the idea that the way children act in libraries means that each of these institutions constitutes a sort of "observatoire culturel" (Jacqueline Eidelman and Régine Sirota, “Des petits rats de bibliothèque: Pratiques culturelles à la ibliothèque [sic] des enfants du Centre G. Pompidou”, Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France, 1987:

Un observatoire culturel

La bibliothèque enfantine est ainsi non seulement « un excellent observatoire des pratiques culturelles, à condition de ne jamais oublier de localiser cet observatoire dans l'espace des pratiques sociales », mais aussi une excellente lunette braquée sur la constitution des prédispositions culturelles.


  1. michael farris said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    I have nothing to add about observatory but when I first read the quote I thought you would be blogging about the choice of 'informant' which is potentially kind of negative in a political setting (very different from its use in linguistics). I would have thought that 'contact' would have been a more neutral choice.

    [(myl) Or maybe "network of sources".]

  2. George said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    The word 'informant' didn't leap off the page at me and I'm not sure about the negative connotations. Of course, 'informer' is a very different story. Having read the post in full, I find the use of Augustin Girard's term 'shy choice' in the title more surprising, as it implies that an observatory is something that doesn't pass judgement. That may be the case for cultural observatories but it isn't – in my experience – the case for human rights or electoral observatories. They are in the passing judgement business.

  3. marie-lucie said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    "A shy choice": I suppose that the original is "un choix timide". "Timide" can mean both 'shy' and 'timid', but perhaps the tranlator chose the word less likely to be a "faux ami'".

    There are indeed negative connotations with "informant", not from linguists but from potential sources confusing the word with "informer". A linguist funded by what appears to be a government agency and looking for "informants" can arouse a lot of suspicion. For this reason, the preferred word is "linguistic consultant".

  4. John said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    Given all the UN-type contexts cited, is this a loan-meaning, and one that's a tad false friend?

  5. Avinor said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    This is very common in EU English (just google "european observatory"), which indeed has been influenced a lot by French.

  6. Mark Mandel said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

    The use of "veritable" in the 1990 quote suggests that the writer was coining the phrase (as far as they knew), rather than using an expression that they had heard/seen in use.

    Pardon my bad French, but the 1987 French quotation seems to be using "observatoire" in a rather different sense than either English "observatory" or the defs. offered by Collins on-line:
    nom masculin singulier
    1 établissement spécialisé dans les études astronomiques, météorologiques ou volcaniques
    2 poste d'observation situé dans un endroit généralement élevé
    3 structure chargée d'observer les faits économiques, politiques ou sociaux

    — unless it's an extension of sense 2, since, while a children's library is in general by no means intended as a place to observe and document children's behavior, it can indeed serve as a place to do so: observing the behavior covertly, as from a height.

  7. Nick Lamb said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

    The SSL observatory‡ is a project, rather than an installation or organisation, but the same metaphor seems to be involved. The SSL of its title is the Secure Socket Layer used to secure otherwise plain text communications on the Internet, most commonly in login pages and e-commerce sites on the web.

    Like an astronomical observatory the SSL observatory collects information from many sources, and makes that information available for study by others. But instead of stars many light years away emitting light and radio waves, the sources are secure web sites emitting the SSL credentials needed to connect to them. The analogy is… fuzzy.


  8. Tracy said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

    There are a lot of "bird observatories", which I guess are somewhere between the hard-science usage and the others listed here (none of which I had ever encountered before). I would assume there are a lot of others like this . . .

    After testing about a dozen search terms, I found that pretty much everything I came up with had hits for "_____ observatory". Huh.

  9. Nathan said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    Google claims 604,000 hits for "navel observatory".

  10. Boris said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    Reminds me of that episode of Star Trek where Starfleet set up an invisible (cloaked) "observation post" on an alien planet with a primitive culture in order to study it without interfering. Calling something like that a "cultural observatory" sounds fine to me, though it only agrees with the cited dictionary definition if "natural phenomenon" is taken very broadly.

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