With related grants scattered among many locations, foundations often find it necessary to compare the experience of grantees in one site to that in another. A typical case: “Progress in Columbus has been significantly faster than in any other site.” Fine. That is exactly the inanimate meaning-referring to a location, scene, or physical situation-for which the Latin word situs and all its European successors have done excellent service.
So useful has this lineage been, in fact, that its simple locational meaning survived pretty much unmolested through a couple of millennia. Then weird things started happening, as in the haunted nurseries of certain horror movies: The inanimate began to speak. Sites acquired a voice (“Sites report several delays,” says one report, following later with “Many sites have expressed a desire…”). Ever since, the disembodied chatter from SITES has become deafening.
Some sites speak more than others. Amid the pressures of the Persian Gulf War, as the press carried its daily load of leaks and pronouncements attributed solely to “The White House,” General Colin Powell started referring to the source of these statements as “the house that talks.” But the White House is far from the only instance of muttering masonry. By the 1980s all sorts of architecture, places, settings, positions, situations, and even mere attitudes had found their voice. (“We convened a meeting of all the sites in the third quarter of 1998,” said a recent foundation paper, “and several centers requested additional meetings on at least a quarterly basis.”)
This usage would be merely funny, were it not for the often deliberate obfuscation hiding behind it. Why would buildings, places, and “sites,” rather than people, indulge in so much babbling? For precisely the reason that so frustrated General Powell: Someone is hiding the real source of the babble. That may be normal in power politics, but it is destructive in places like foundations, whose second most valuable currency (after money) is information, discussion, and intellectual exchange. Sometimes, it is simply too much trouble to identify who, exactly, “reports,” “requests,” “expresses desires,” or whatever. Occasionally the source is obvious, and at other times it’s unimportant.
But the habit of using SITES to refer to unnamed people is deadly. Give this usage enough sway, and grantees with different views quickly find themselves lumped into talking “sites” that somehow speak for them without their knowledge or even agreement. Far better to say “several grantees in various places report” this or that, rather than to imply (no doubt inaccurately) that all grantees in all “sites” are unanimous. Similarly, to say that one or two “sites” accomplished something significant is not merely to deny credit to the people who really did the accomplishing. Worse, it denies everyone else accurate information about how things were accomplished, and by whom. One thing is certain: The site accomplished nothing whatsoever.