Source 2 : A discussion of the term statistics from ‘History of the origin and progress of the Statistical Account of Scotland’, by Sir John Sinclair, 1798
Printed book (NLS shelfmark: S.A.S.)
When the ‘Statistical Account’ was published, the term ‘statistics’ was relatively new. Sir John Sinclair discussed his reason for choosing it in this essay: ‘I thought a new word might attract more public attention, I resolved on adopting it, and I hope that it is now completely naturalised and incorporated into our language.’ [volume 20, page 14]
Statistical surveys in Europe
During his travels in northern Europe, Sinclair saw similar surveys being carried out in Germany. Here, he discusses the statistical surveys he saw on the continent and compares them with his own aims.
MANY people were at first surprised, at my using the new words, Statistics and Statistical, as it was supposed, that some term in our own language, might have expressed the same meaning. But, in the course of a very extensive tour, through the northern parts of Europe, which I happened to take in 1786, I found, that in Germany they were engaged in a species of political inquiry, to which they had given the name of Statistics; and though I apply a different idea to that word, for by Statistical is meant in Germany, an inquiry for the purpose of ascertaining the political strength of a country, or questions respecting matters of state; whereas, the idea I annex to the term, is an inquiry into the state of a country, for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants, and the means of its future improvement; yet as
I thought that a new word, might attract more public attention, I resolved on adopting it, and I hope that it is now completely naturalised and incorporated with our language.
- How useful is Sinclair’s definition of statistics as evidence of his aims for the Statistical Account?
- Compare Sinclair’s definition of ‘statistics’ with our usage of the word today. How does it differ? Discuss how Sinclair’s definition reflects Enlightenment preoccupations with improvement?