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Public memorials and private memorandums

A leaked memo and the controversy about Confederate memorials are both potentially monumental stories.

A sign which reads "LOVE" stands on the spot where a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis once stood in New Orleans on May 20, 2017.
Kevin McGill/AP
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Amid the controversy in Washington, an unfamiliar verb usage has caught my eye: memorialize meaning “to write a memo about” something, or “to make written notes of” something.

This usage, referring to private “remembering” on paper or on a computer, is popping up even as other communities have been wrestling with questions of public memory, of whom and of what they should be memorializing in bronze and in stone. 

The New York Times reported May 16 on a memorandum that former FBI Director James Comey wrote, essentially to himself, on his talk with the president after the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The memo was said to note President Trump’s request that the FBI halt its probe of Mr. Flynn.

The FBI turns out to be full of ­writer-downers, and even within that company Mr. Comey stands out. A CNN piece on the memo included this: “The FBI director would memorialize the conversations he had with Trump as soon as he got into his car after the meetings, [an] official [close to Comey] said.” 

Similarly, an NPR report mentioned congressional Democrats’ efforts to obtain “any possible White House recordings, transcripts or notes memorializing Trump’s side of the story.” 

Fox News opinion writer Gregg Jarrett used the same term in his piece dismissing the significance of the memo: “Comey did what he always does – he wrote a memorandum to himself memorializing the conversation. Good lawyers do that routinely.” 

Memorandum, memorial, remember, and commemorate all share a common Latin root, memor, meaning “mindful, remembering,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary

These words have a vast network of kin across the Indo-European languages.

Meanwhile, memorialize is in active use in its more conventional senses. A quick check turns up a report that North Huntingdon, Pa., was to “memorialize” – that is, literally, hold a funeral service for – a much-loved local police dog. In Mishawaka, Ind., officials are pondering whether to do more to “memorialize” local World War I veterans. 

But the more top-of-mind “memorializing” issue for most people now is that of what to do about statues and other monuments to the Confederacy.

At this writing, for instance, New Orleans is in the midst of executing a plan to relocate four such memorials “to a museum, garden or other site suitable for historical artifacts,” as The Washington Post has noted editorially. It seems that some details remain to be worked out. But the Post endorsed the relocation, saying it “would memorialize and contextualize a distant time without dishonoring it.” 

In many cities of the former Confederacy, the relocation of Confederate monuments has been energized by the June 2015 massacre of nine African-Americans at prayer in their church in Charleston, S.C.

The vocabulary of memory is playing a role in two current major news threads – the Washington story and the Confederate controversy. Both have the potential to turn into something truly monumental.