Dr. Boli is compiling a list of words that literary, cultural, and political critics are ordered not to use in his presence any longer—an Index Verborum Prohibitorum, as he calls it. The penalty for violating these injunctions will be severe: it will be nothing less than knowing that Dr. Boli has stopped reading your article at the exact point where the prohibited word appeared. However profound your thought, however clever your expression of it, he will read no more of it, because the prohibited word has kicked him out.

We have already mentioned the word transgressive, which has the honorable first place in the Index. And today’s prohibited word is


Why “identity?” Let us look at a smattering of quotations from a single article in a university newspaper:

ISU Theatre explores questions of identity, community through “Iowa Odyssey (or How We Got to Here)”

ISU Theatre’s “Iowa Odyssey (or How We Got to Here),” a unique, locally sourced theatre collaboration about identity, community and hope, opens Friday, April 26 at Fisher Theater.…

Last fall the production’s student advance team began interviewing Ames community members and ISU students, faculty and staff about their experiences of culture, identity and immigration.…

We’re exploring how the question of identity and where we come from shapes how we can build a community together.…

…explore how stories passed down through generations create belonging and identity.…

Advance team member Bethmari Marquez Barreto, a junior animal ecology and performing arts major from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, said she felt a responsibility to use her identities as an artist and multicultural student to bring attention to an important social issue.…

What does it take to shape a person? What is identity? What is diversity? How do people perceive these traits and qualities of the people?…

The story tells us that the university’s theater group is mounting some sort of production about various abstractions—“identity, community and hope.” Perhaps a Greek chorus impersonates “Community,” with one solitary figure stage right representing “Identity,” until “Hope” comes along and beans him with her anchor. It probably makes for riveting theater, but Dr. Boli has decided to save his money and buy tickets to a Noel Coward play instead. And by the way, when he heard the phrase “animal ecology and performing arts major,” Dr. Boli immediately imagined that this ambitious junior must be studying lion-taming.

The problem with the word “identity” in these contexts is the same as the problem with nearly every other word that will appear in the Index. It is an abstraction that has been abstracted so much that it has become meaningless. What do you answer if some lion-taming college junior taking a poll asks you how you perceive someone’s identity? The proper response to such a question could only be something like this: “Sober, I see one of him. Drunk, I see two.” Dr. Boli imagines the sturdy midwestern farmers of the Ames area telling each other, “Don’t answer the door for the next couple days. Them college kids are going round asking people about their experiences of identity again.”

But if we cannot speak of “questions of identity,” then how can we talk about these things at all? The answer is the same for every word in the Index: Say what you mean. This is going to take some effort, because it will involve figuring out what you mean before you say it, and these abstractions are useful precisely because they spare us the effort of meaning anything. Thinking is more work than typing.

Nevertheless, if you wish to hold Dr. Boli’s attention, you must put in some effort and think before you type. Of course the question of whether Dr. Boli is reading your article may not concern you; in fact, in reading some of these articles, it occurs to Dr. Boli that the question of whether anyone was actually reading was not prominent in the authors’ minds. If you are writing merely to fulfill an obligation to type a certain number of words before you knock off for the afternoon, then by all means use as many meaningless abstractions as you like. The more the better, since they make the words roll effortlessly off the keyboard. But if it is your intention to communicate a thought, do not use the word “identity.” It is broken.


  1. A group is a set with an operation on set members which is complete [ (a*b) is in the set], associative [ (a*b)*c=a*(b*c) ], with an identity [ a*i=i*a=a ], and such that every element has an inverse [ (a*a^)=(a^*a)=i ].
    The integers with addition are a familar example, where 0 is the identity.

    So to answer her question: “What is identity?” It is a thing which does not change anything.

    • Richard A says:

      I was gratified to see that our esteemed host has not declared that he will immediately fling future algebra texts into the fireplace upon first encountering the word “identity”. I myself reread his introduction to his Index Verborum Prohibitorum and assured myself that it pertains only to “literary, cultural, and political critics.”

  2. Ernest says:

    By the way, when he heard the phrase “animal ecology and performing arts major,” Dr. Boli immediately imagined that this ambitious junior must be studying lion-taming.

    Actually, it’s not that uncommon. I myself double-majored in chemistry and vocal performance, and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Jean-Marie Lehn is a wonderful pianist. I know of a well-respected chemist who took a sabbatical with the Metropolitan Opera.

  3. KevinT says:

    I’m confused. Is a lion a junior animal? Or is that an accurate description only if the lion being tamed is not terribly advanced in years?

  4. RepubAnon says:

    I thought questions of identity started with someone in a uniform uttering the phrase “Papers, please.”

  5. Mary says:

    Personally, I would add “stewardship.”

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