“Detroit does see a lot of repeat visitations from tourists.”

My student was following the money woes of Detroit as his Journal project (“follow an issue in the news for seven weeks, selecting and summarizing articles on multiple sides of the issue, and then write an argument essay that takes a position on the issue and supports it with evidence and reasoning” is more or less the assignment).

This sentence is from his summary of an article talking about the viability of Detroit as a “destination.”

Of course I noted “wrong word!” in the margin. And then I took another look at the article—and found that the reporter had also referred to tourist “visitations.” How, then, can I blame my student?

I can lament his not knowing that “visit” and “visitation” do not (yet) have the same meaning, but I also have to acknowledge that people who don’t read a lot—and especially people who don’t read certain kinds of things a lot (legal papers, ghost stories, confessional tales)—haven’t had a lot of opportunities to learn this.

For those of us who do read those certain kinds of things, and/or the dictionary, the words are distinct.

A “visit” is a “short stay,” or a journey combined with a short stay. It might also be a search by a naval officer on the high seas, but we’ll leave that alone.

The fun comes with the verb “to visit.” It can mean “to pay a call on”; it can also mean “to comfort, as by God,” “to reside with temporarily as a guest,” “to go to see with a particular purpose,” “to go officially to inspect or oversee”—AND “to inflict a scourge upon, as by God,” “to avenge, as in visit one’s wrath upon,” or “to present momentarily or be overcome by,” as to be visited by a strange notion.

These latter verb senses seem to inhabit the noun “visitation”: “an official visit as for inspection,” “a special dispensation of divine favor or wrath,” “a severe trial or affliction,” “a right granted to the non-custodial parent in a divorce.”

Another meaning adheres by way of the noun “visitant”: a visitor, especially one thought to come from the spirit world. Or a migrant bird that regularly visits a particular site.

These definitions all come from my handy Webster’s, but a quick tour around online dictionaries pretty much bears out these demarcations.

So when I read about tourist visitations to Detroit, I imagine ectoplasmic sojourners wafting in on the easterly breezes, possibly at the summons of some benevolent (or malevolent) psychic in the public-relations office. And then of course I imagine Detroit besieged by them, the air thickened and the atmosphere begloomed by them, a plague of touring ghosts. Have they come on an official inspection tour, or to reward or punish, or simply to haunt? That we are not told; we know only that they come more than once. As if Detroit didn’t have enough problems.

A visitation by only one ghost, preferably one who still believed in democracy and public property and was willing to punish incompetent or irresponsible management, would perhaps be a blessing. If the ghost were especially whimsical or frolicsome he or she might even contribute to the economy by becoming an attraction for visits by ordinary tourists!


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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