Friday, May 5, 2017

Wh@t's Th@t? It's a C@at's T@ail

(This article appeared in the April/May Lexpert under the above title)         
                             Wh@’s Th@? In Finnish It’s a C@’s Tail


                                                       Howard Richler

A couple of years ago I contemplated making a home exchange with a couple in Berlin and as a result I had a telephone conversation with someone called Uwe Mueller in which we talked about our respective home towns and the previous home exchanges we had experienced. Like many Germans, Mr. Mueller’s English was quite proficient but we did hit a snag at one juncture. I asked him for his email address to which he replied, “It’s” I didn’t know if Mr Mueller had just sneezed or was  swearing at me so I asked him to repeat what he said at not surprisingly it was  the same - ””   After a pause of several seconds he checked with someone near him and told me “apparently in North America you call it ‘at’.”

Now while klammeraffe is not as long as freundschaftsbezeigungen (“demonstrations of friendship”) or the more diminutive volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”) it is still quite a mouthful compared to “at.”  

Incidentally, klammeraffe means “spider monkey” and if you find it peculiar that Germans compare the @ sign with an animal, be aware that the rather pedestrian  universal use of “at” designation in the English-speaking world represents the exception, not the rule. For example, Germany’s neighbour Netherlands designates the symbol as api short for apestaart (monkey’s tail) whereas the Italians call it chiocciolina and the sometimes used French petit escargot both that mean “little snail.” Danes and Swedes call it snabel or snabela (elephant’s trunk) and Finns call it miau, “cat tail.” Keeping up this zoocentric tradition, Czechs see the symbol as a rolled-up fish filet, Greeks as a duckling, Hungarians and Thais as a worm, Ukranians and Russians as a dog and the Chinese as a mouse. Some countries prefer to envisage the symbol as tasty foods like Norwegians who designate it kanel-bolle (spiral-shaped-cinnamon cake)  and Israelis who call it shtrudel, and Austrians strudel (pastry).

Spaniards seemingly have a different conception. Here it is called arroba, an ancient unit of weight of approximately 25 pounds. This word derives from Arabic word rub (pronounced roob) which refers to “a quarter part.” Apparently, in the 19th century, Spanish ports began emulating the commercial measures of the English. But as the Spaniards were unaware of the meaning given by the British to the @ symbol, where it only designated how much a unit cost (e.g., 10@ £5) meant 10 units of a product at the price of 5 pounds),they supposed it was a unit of weight because it was used as such already in Spain. In Portuguese- speaking countries the same word is used and is also based on a unit of weight, slightly higher than the Spanish one.

Before computer networks were interconnected, an email could only be used to send messages to various users of the same computer.  But once computers began to talk to each other over networks things became more complex.  A means was required needed to indicate to whom the electronic mail should go that the electronic posties understood - just like the postal system, we needed a way to indicate an address. This problem was solved in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson a Boston researcher at ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. (Tomlinson died this past March at age 74). He selected the symbol @ to represent a separator between an email name and an email location. So while the “at” or “commercial at” designation may not be as evocative as the many animalistic ones that are used, it is an eminently logical one. Incidentally, the @ symbol was not included on the keyboard of the earliest typewriters but it made its debut in one 1889 model and the commercially successful models from the Underwood No. 5 starting in 1900.

It is commonly believed that Tomlinson chose this as this quintessential email symbol precisely because it was not used that often although it sat on every keyboard. So although the “at” designation is somewhat boring compared to the lurid metaphorical ones used in many countries, its name does have history on its side. In any case, “commercial at” is the official name for the symbol in the ASCII character set.

While Tomlinson helped popularize the @ symbol, in reality it has enjoyed a long history. It was first used  in the seventh century where it was a way of writing with one stroke the word ad which means “at” or “to” in Latin. Along its path, it has enjoyed other senses. For example, Venetian traders used it to signify “amphora,” a terracotta vessel that was a symbol of measurement.  But it always kept its meaning of “at” and was often used as an accounting and commercial abbreviation meaning “at a rate of.” For example, the accounting record 10@£15 would designate ten units of at the price of 15 pounds each unit.

Most likely inspired by the name for the & symbol – ampersand, the designation ampersat and asperand have been suggested as names for the @ symbol, but neither one has inspired much support.

Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in April 2016

Friday, March 10, 2017


                           The Co-Opting of the Word Elite by the Real Elites


                                                   Howard Richler

Trump Win Should Send Elites Back to the Drawing Board Thomas Sowell, Nov 14, 2016, Toronto Sun

Reckoning With a Trump Presidency and the Elite Democrats Who Helped Deliver It Betsy Reed, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, Nov 12, 2016, The Intercept

The Hubris of Democratic Elites, Clinton Campaign Gave Us President Trump Kenin Gosztola, Nov 9, 2016, Shadowproof

These are but three of the countless headlines we saw days after the American election asserting that the left-wing “elites” were responsible for the election of Donald Trump. But hold on folks. Surely billionaire Donald Trump who was born into a rich family is also an elite?  And of course, notwithstanding that Trump’s wealth is far greater and far less transparent than that of the Clintons, this didn’t prevent him from constantly assailing Hillary Clinton as an elite on social media.   But, don’t get smug and imagine that the same selective elite-bashing isn’t going on in Canada. In November, Conservative candidate Kellie Leitch sent an email that congratulated Donald Trump on his election victory, praised his anti-establishment message and declared “the elites are out of touch.”  Leitch and her advisors have made “elite” the mantra of their campaign. They have criticized Lisa Raitt for supporting “the left-wing media elite” and called Andrew Scheer an “out-of-touch elite” for launching his leadership campaign at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa.  Incidentally, MD Leitch, who grew up in an affluent family in Winnipeg made these comments while promoting a $500-a-person fundraiser organized by lawyers.

So given most people’s previous understanding of the word, how did “elite” take on this connotation to refer to people on the left of the political spectrum? Dictionaries are not of much help here. The OED defines “elite” as the “choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of person” and has its first citation for this definition in the 19th century. Actually, it does show an earlier meaning in the 15th century but with a very narrow sense as “a person chosen, spec., a bishop elect.” The Encarta World English Dictionary gets closer to the implied sense in the headlines quoted above. It defines “elite” as “a small group of people, within a larger group who have more power, social standing, wealth, or talent than the rest of the group.”  But even this doesn’t explain why the term is used nowadays almost exclusively to refer to the liberal left.  If the classic connotation is of people by virtue of birth being able to achieve status at the expense of others, surely the word applies more to the Trumps and Leitches of the cosmos.

The explanation lies in political theory where the term “liberal elite” has been used since the 1960s to describe politically left-leaning people, whose education had traditionally opened the doors to affluence and power and to thus to dominating managerial positions. In fact, if you check the site Google Ngram Viewer which charts the frequency of words and expressions from the years 1500 to 2008, you will find that the expressions “liberal elite” and “Democratic elites” enjoyed huge spikes in usage starting in 1990. An underlying premise of this theory is the belief that the people who claim to support the rights of working men and women are themselves members of the ruling class and are therefore out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to support and protect. It’s possible that many people supported Trump because they were put off by what they saw as the smugness of some people in the Democratic Party and by the left-leaning media.  Exemplifying this was political commentator Bill Maher’s suggestion that people who intended to vote for Trump suffered from congenital defects. Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s comment during the campaign that half of Trump supporters were “deplorables” caused her great political harm. Claiming that you are somehow superior to others in any aspect of your life is a no-no in our post-modern, post-truth world.  Therefore, right-wing talking heads use the designation” “elite”  as a polemical tool  to declaim  positions associated with the left as varied as environmentalism, secularism, feminism, sexuality, immigration, and multiculturalism.

Ironically, because “regular” Americans were angry at the elites represented by the Democratic Party and the media, they nevertheless elected one of the richest and most elitist people in the United States. These “regular people” disdained the Democrat Party notwithstanding the fact that Democratic President Barack Obama had among other advantages brought them the Affordable Care Act, a form of health care previously only afforded to the elites, now available to over 20 million hard-up Americans.

Only time will tell if “elite” to refer to so-called ivory tower groups with certain political leanings is more appropriate than “elite” used to designate the resident of the Fifth Avenue, pseudo-Versailles Trump Tower.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit




Senior Times reader explores the changing meanings of words


                                            Howard Richler

Senior Times reader Shirley Skeans Newell asks, “Can you give me your interpretation of a word triangulation? Yes, there is the old geometric definition, but in psychiatric circles nowadays it has several interpretations.   1) gossip..two people talking about a third person   2) a situation where a third party is trying to bring two persons in conflict together; i.e., a counsellor.”

While triangulation may have been born in the field of geometry it has acquired other senses as Ms Newell correctly states. Aside from the psychological ones she mentioned, the term is used in politics to refer to a process of positioning oneself politically between traditional right-wing and left-wing positions. This coinage is attributed to Dick Morris, a one-time adviser to former US President Bill Clinton.

Many words from the fields of mathematics and sciences have been co-opted by other fields and this sometimes raises the hackles of “originalists.”  Some years ago I wrote a column in which I characterized Silicon Valley as the epicenter of technology and received an angry letter informing me that the term should only be applied to “the point on the surface of the earth that overlies the subterranean focus of an earthquake.” I answered my scold by telling him that while the geologic sense of earthquake was the original meaning of the word when it was first coined in the 19th century, by the 20th century the word acquired the general meaning of “focal point” as in expressions such as “Paris is the epicenter of the fashion industry.”

Similarly, French born American historian Jacques Barzun disliked the usage of “synergy” to refer to the merging of two corporations as he claimed that the true meaning of the word is “ a greater effect than the sum of the efforts.” Actually, it has been used in physiology since the mid 19th century to refer to the working together of a group of bodily organs such as nerve-centres or muscles. But before this it had a more general sense. In 1660, the OED sports this citation: “They speak only of such a Synergie, .. as makes men differ from a sensless stock, or liveless statua, in reference to the great work of his own conversion.”

The borrowing of terms from science and mathematics is hardly a new phenomenon. The original meaning of “galaxy” was “a luminous band ..encircling the heavens irregularly, and known to consist of innumerable stars..” and the OED sports a citation with this sense in 1398. But by the year 1590 the word was being used to describe a crowd of beautiful women. Similarly, the word “eclipse” was first used to describe a celestial event in 1300, but by 1526 it was used to describe “the periodical obscuration of the light from a light-house” and by 1711 to “a fraudulent device in dice-playing.” By the early 18th century it began to be used as a verb meaning “to surpass.” Similarly, “parameter” has transcended its mathematical genesis. While the original 17th century OED definition refers to “the proportional to any given diameter and its conjugate,” by the 20th century, however, it had been used often by the mathematically-challenged public to mean any fact or circumstance that limits how something is done. Some years ago, authors Lara Stein and Benjamin Yoskovitz in The Buzzword Bingo Book mocked the usage of “algorithm” to mean “any tested, methodical approach to getting from A to Z. We used to call this a plan.” But what we have here is a generalization process where a problem-solving procedure for answering strictly mathematical conundrums is extended to solving any problem. In any case the OED relates that the strictly mathematical sense was co-opted by the medical profession in the late 1960s to refer to a “step-by-step procedure for reaching a clinical decision or diagnosis, often set out in the form of a flow chart, in which the answer to each question determines the next question to be asked.”

It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and this maxim holds true in misconceptions about the meaning of words. Some people cling to the curious belief that change somehow takes us away from the “true” meaning of words. This belief, often called the etymological fallacy, is clearly absurd. Its retention would  posit that only stone buildings can de dilapidated because of the etymology from the Latin, lapis, meaning  “stone” and that only men can possess virtue, because the word comes from the Latin virs, “man.” Associated with this belief is a “professional” fallacy where people in certain professions object to the way their specialized words are co-opted by the masses.

Keep those letters coming Senior Times readers.

Richler’s latest book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit was published last year.

Friday, February 24, 2017



1601-Discern the convergent words:a)gall-infection-stones   b)guard-nudge-rice       c)aqua-artificial-iron

1602- Split Definitive Puzzle    era of weed    (a)   (6)   

1603-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means conductorless streetcars  

1604-Discern the convergent words:  a)top-bran-raga     b)root-soup-stick      c)talk-cup-ice

1605- Split Definitive Puzzle  can’t   (a)   (7)

1606-Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that means disgusting collector of louse eggs.

1607- Discern the convergent words: a)red-giant-bear      b)red-ten-trench       c)red-out-fire

1608- Split Definitive Puzzle  comeback in the bottom of the ninth ( 9  (  r )

1609-Name a 4 word palindromic phrase that means midday hanky-panky strains the body  

1610-Discern the convergent words:  a)french-gas-honey      b)chops-head-stew           c)dud-whole-weed

1611-Split Definitive Puzzle  hinder man    (9)    (d)  

1612-Name a 4 word palindromic phrase that means there’s none of this type of fish cooking in the birthplace of Elvis       

 1613-Discern the convergent words: a)freezer-hair-hope      b)bear-hammer-foot         c)a-ache-age

1614-Split Definitive Puzzle  jingle      (7) (v)

1615-Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that  means robbing Dobby heartlessly

1616-Discern the convergent words: a)ability-flat-size   b-false-state-less     c)pin-room-under

1617-Split Definitive Puzzle     voiceless vase    (8)   (t)

1618-Name a 7 word palindromic phrase that uncomfortable carnal relations in a Japanese car negates desire.

1619-Discern the convergent words: a)sea-gravel-coat    b)blood-chicken-can     c)bomb-hill-don

1620-Split Definitive Puzzle  cheerless whiz    (7)   (g)

1621-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means hellish hue  

1622-Discern the convergent words: a)stop-spur-game    b)away-no-by           c)part-pump-ash

1623-Split Definitive Puzzle  Where hubby might sleep when he’s in the doghouse   (b)   (6)

1624-What do these words have in common?   bandaged-bailing-spoonfeed-femoral-organism   

1625-Discern the convergent words: a)public-pop-inner    b)care-alive-flint     c)sassiness-bloody-bones

1626-Split Definitive Puzzle   bovine bend      (5) (b)  

1627-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means intrepid person involved in a joint succession   

1628-Discern the convergent words: a)stand-truck-bell    b)con-in-practiioner    c)beer-cake-fish

1629-Split Definitive Puzzle   place inhabitant   (10)  (l)

1630-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means from being miffed to apoplexy

1631-Discern the convergent words: a)green-root-tree     b)bird-grove-key    c)chicken-high-spots    

1632-Split Definitive Puzzle   rascal expired   (7)  (c )

1633-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means fixing a hole in a sock

1634-Discern the convergent words:  a)bow-coo-up     b)ate- gym-shirt      c)bishop-dress-romantic

1635-Split Definitive Puzzle  sword measurments   (12)   (m)

1636-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes Andrew Sullivan, Anna Wintour & Ben Bradlee

1637-Discern the convergent words: a)open-off-over    b)rep-bed-motel    c)hip-like-nip

1638-Split Definitive Puzzle     Cindy Crawford or Kate Moss (8)   (p)

1639-What do these words have in common? Australia-precarious location-precocious-mutilate-Flemish-propane-striation-resolute 

1640-Discern the convergent words: a)chicken-poll-shrimp   b)bone-red-schmaltz     c)badger-bear-child

1641-Split Definitive Puzzle   favored sea bird   (6)  (i)

1642-Name a 9 letter word that incorporates 2 zodiac signs. 

1643-Discern the convergent words:  a)coal-about-less    b)a-plate-feed         c)n-naked-on

1644-Split Definitive Puzzle  Scandal in Montana town  (12)    (g)

1645-Name a  non-US capital city that is named after a US President

1646-Discern the convergent words: a)caddy-gunpowder-pot    b)relish-meal-ball           c)oil-zebra-sun

1647-Split Definitive Puzzle  possible result of over-drinking in public   (7)  (r)

1648-What do these words have in common?   hand-cap-wheels

1649-Discern the convergent words: a)legal-war-eye   b)line-queen-busy  c)black-bell-counting

1650-Split Definitive Puzzle  discourage excavating    (11)   (d)

1651-Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that means pretend to be a fabulist

1652-Discern the convergent words:  a)priest-sour-class   b)favor-house-powder     c)honor-call-dice

1653-Split Definitive Puzzle      bury deed   (11)   (9)   (a)

1654-Name a 5 word palindromic phrase that means Shorthand male typists analyse many paintings by an impressionist          

1655-Discern the convergent words: a)dead-cup-drops   b)freeze-left-pea   c)note-flat-pussy

1656-Split Definitive Puzzle  had an appointment at a doctor’s office    (13)    (m)

1657-What do these words have in common?   diagnose-ordeal-wanker

1658-Discern the convergent words: a)road-heaven-line   b)huge-tree-wooly    c)iron-crazy-play

1659-Split Definitive Puzzle  old stance    (10)  (p)   

1660-What do these words have in common?  avocado-mayhem-demise-curfew         

1661-Discern the convergent words: a)point-tip-jam    b)courts-pocket-pie   c)crew-flower-framework  

1662-Split Definitive Puzzle  commanded by flat bottom boat    (7)      (s) 

1663-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means lycra gets larger  

1664-Discern the convergent words: a)hole-her-tan    b)oaf-go-copy   c)up-digger-bar

1665-Split Definitive Puzzle   harbor antiquity   (7)   (p)
1666-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means commence bender   
1667-Discern the convergent words: a)fat-sandwich-back   b)vodka-cocktail-dry   c)mine-away-sailor

1668-Split Definitive Puzzle   blatant anger    (8)  (o)

1669-Name 2  cities &  2 countries of  10 letters or  more   where no letters repeat themselves

1670-Discern the convergent words: a)operator-drunk-card    b)beach-butter-hot   c)ski-gate-black

1671-Split Definitive Puzzle   kiss mistake  (11)  (b)

1672-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means bio  

1673-Discern the convergent words:  a)am-smart-bad   b)winter-black-eye   c)sandwich-can-melt

1674-Split Definitive Puzzle-leave in the mind  (14)  (m)

1675- What do these words have in common?  basement-stampede-needless

1676- Discern the convergent words    up-key-house    packed-up-my       brown-wedding-cinnamon

1677- Split Definitive Puzzle prisoner goes down (11)   (d)

1678- Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that  means fastens alpine home

1679- Discern the convergent words   dog-dolly droppings   sea-us-black         kite-kitty-jay

1680- Split Definitive Puzzle writing utensil song (8)  (c)

1681- Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that  means higher quality warrior  

1682- Discern the convergent words   iron-ion-ate   median-pathway-bloody   river-sore-guard

1683- Split Definitive Puzzle command from fishermen  (8)  (n)

1684-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means enmesh mother  

1685- Discern the convergent words   bling-cake-demon    bit-pea-fat     bar-box-post

1686- Split Definitive Puzzle   penny gathering (9)   ( r  )

1687-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means discussion about ecology

1688- Discern the convergent words   fuel-fools-ice    green-gun-way     jack-leg-eject

1689- Split Definitive Puzzle   meadow chant  (7)   (s)

1690 Name a beer brand of at least 10 letters where every letter is only worth 1 point in Scrabble
1691- Discern the convergent words    sun-star-mad     mud-cake-salt     glass-tamil-shrimp
1692- Split Definitive Puzzle blemish metropolis    (8)   (s)
1693-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that  means most narcissistic countrymen 
1694- Discern the convergent words   circuits-dead-trust      foot-formation-front      store-story-double
1695- Split Definitive Puzzle   braking power (9) (r )
1696-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that  means impressionist painter got older
1697-Discern the convergent words   wood-weed-soup     super-over-emirates     sea-song-dive
1698-Split Definitive Puzzle position in Forbes 500     (10)   ( r )
1699- What do these words have in common?       bailout-tweet-app
1700- Discern the convergent words   tag-thick-banana   treatment-id-cut    written-cut-out

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Words of the Year in the US & Uk

                                        What’s in a Word of the Year?


                                                          Howard Richler

We are constantly bombarded by new English words and meanings to words, so why not honour these innovations? To this end, since 1990 the American Dialect Society (ADS) has been electing annually a “word of the year.” The formula used by the ADS is similar to the process used by Time Magazine that has been selecting a “person of the year” since 1927 when Charles Lindbergh was the inaugural selection; i.e., choosing a person or word that was of particular significance in the past year.

Not surprisingly, the fields that have been most dominant in providing important neologisms have been technology and sociopolitics/economics. For example, in the former, these words have previously been deemed “word of the year”: Hashtag (2012), app (2010), tweet (2009), Y2K (1999), e- (1998), WWW (1995) cyber (1994). In addition, in 2010, google was voted as “word of the decade.” In the latter category, winners were occupy (2011), bailout (2008), subprime (2007), truthiness (2007), WMD (2002). 9-11 (2001), chad (2000) bushlips (1990).  The term truthinesss was invented by Stephen Colbert and refers to the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true. You could say that Colbert envisaged the mindset of next decade’s Trump supporters.

Some of the choices have proved to be short-lived. In fact, the very first selection in 1990, bushlips had the shortest legs of all. It referred to insincere political rhetoric emanating from the mouth of George Herbert Bush. Other choices that have not lasted are plutoed the 2006 selection that referred to the demotion or devaluation of something.  It was named from the decision of the General Assembly of the International Astronomic Association that Pluto no longer deserved to be classified as a planet. Another term that fizzled out was the 1999 choice Y2K. It was an abbreviation for “the year 2000.” Many people believed that the advent of the year 2000 would create computer chaos because programmers represented the four digit year without the final two digits making the year 2000 indistinguishable from the year 1900. Needless to say a cyber-apocalypse never ensued leading to the term Y2K not having any great currency in the new millennium. If you’re under thirty you might not be familiar with the 1993 selection information superhighway, a term for the Internet that hasn’t been used much since of the end of the century.

In recent years, I have found some of the choices of the ADS to be puzzling. For example, in 2013 “because” was the winner due to of the  supposed new usage of the word in introducing a noun, adjective or other part of speech  in expressions such as “because reason” or “because awesome.” One of the voters this year stated that “because should be word the year ‘because useful.’ ” I beg to differ as I don’t find this usage useful and don’t believe it is greatly used. Personally, I would have voted one of the runners-up, selfie as the winner.  The following year the hashtag #blacklivesmatter was the winner, notwithstanding that this extends the definition of what qualifies as a word to a level of absurdity.

As American English is but one of the two major flavours in which English can be savoured, it is only fair that we see British selections for words of the year. To this end, Oxford Dictionaries began similar selections in 2004. In 1877, philologist Henry Sweet predicted that within a century British English and American English would become mutually unintelligible. Clearly this has not occurred; however we do see great divergence in the words Oxford has chosen to honour. For example, the only word with a technological bent was selfie, the 2013 selection. The socio-political words chosen were also very different from those picked by the ADS. In fact, only two of the four would be known by many North Americans; the 2007 choice  carbon footprint and the one in 2008 credit crunch. The other two merit explanation for denizens of Canada and the USA. The 2010 choice squeezed middle refers to the situation where wage increases for the middle class fail to keep pace with inflation. The 2011 selection big society refers to a political ideology whereby a significant amount of responsibility for the functioning of society is devolved to local communities and volunteers.

What I found most interesting about the Oxford selections was how many of the winners come from television culture. For example the 2012 winner omnishambles was a neologism that came out of the BBC political satire show The Thick of It; it referred to a situation shambolic to the extreme. The 2006 winner bovvered was a variation of the word “bothered” as uttered by a character in the program Catherine Tate Show. The character Lauren was prone to ask “Am I bovvered?” when embarrassed.  Most curious, however was the 2009 selection simples which arose out of an advertising campaign featuring an animated meerkat. It became a catchphrase uttered when someone want to convey that something is easy to achieve.

And as in the case of ADS, Oxford  too has become overly liberal in its definition of a word  as  the emoji tears of joy was awarded word of the year in 2015.

(The word of the year for 2016 chosen by ADS was dumpster fire to refer to the state of  political chaos that exists).

Richler’s latest book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in May2016

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Vol. 16, No. 1, 2017

Top of Form

Bottom of Form


because names matter
Howard Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven books on a variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I Have a Word With You?, Strange Bedfellows and his most recent book Wordplay:Arranged & Deranged Wit May 2016, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver).

The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman nor an empire.
I had noticed that BBC News always adds the qualifier ‘so-called’ when describing the Islamic State. As I find this usage clumsy, I decided to investigate why the BBC employs it. I discovered that back in June 2015 a large number of British Members of Parliament, from all the major parties, accused the BBC of legitimizing the terrorist group by calling it “the Islamic State.” Even Prime Minister David Cameron entered the fray: “I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State. What it is, is an appalling barbarous regime . . . It’s a perversion of the religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this programme (BBC Radio 4) will recoil every time they hear the words Islamic State.” Others argued that giving it the designation ‘state’ also adds legitimacy because the self-styled caliphate is no more than an organization that is not recognized as a sovereign state by any country in the world.
Of course there are other designations for this terrorist group such as ISIS and ISIL, the latter being the preferred term of President Obama. This is explained by those trying to establish a caliphate, calling themselves, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam. Al-Shaam translates roughly as the Levant (the areas near the East coast of the Mediterranean), also known as Greater Syria. If you translate al-Shaam as the Levant you get ISIL, if you translate it as Syria or just Shaam you get ISIS.
So as you can see there is no consensus on what to call the group                   and as a result there is much variance in designations. While I understand the reluctance of people who feel that the words ‘Islamic’ or ‘state’ lend legitimacy to a terrorist organization, I find adding the qualifier so-called to be somewhat silly. After all, this qualifier has not been generally added to other similar organizations. I don’t know if I ever heard Hezbollah (Party of Allah) referred to as the “so-called Hezbollah” because it doesn’t represent Muslim values, or the IRA referred to as the “so-called Irish Republican Army” because it didn’t really qualify as an army. One could equally argue that because a leader of the former Soviet Union didn’t adhere to Communist principles it should be dubbed as having a “so-called Communist” government or an opponent to the former East German regime could have suggested that the government be labelled the “so-called Democratic Republic.” I remember when Menachem Begin was Prime Minister of Israel (1977-1983), he always referred to the “so-called PLO” because he couldn’t bring himself to suggest it was a liberation movement even in its acronymic form. However, to my recollection, few media outlets conformed to this ‘so-called’ modifier.
Thankfully, there is a simple solution to this naming conundrum. In 2013, Syrian Khaled al-Haj Salih coined the term Daesh (usually pronounced Dash or Da-ish). It is a transliteration of the Arabic acronym and is formed of the same words that make up ISIS in English, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and is rendered in Arabic as al-dawla-al-islamiya fi-al-Iraq wa-ash-shaam. But Daesh also sounds in Arabic very similar to the word daes that means ‘someone or something that crushes or tramples.’ This definition is why the terrorist organization detests the name. In an article in Freeword, February 2015 entitled Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand?, Arab translator Alice Guthrie says that the term is despised because they (the terrorist group) hear it as a challenge to their legitimacy: a dismissal of their aspirations to define Islamic practice to be “a state for all Muslims’ and – crucially – as a refusal to acknowledge and address them as such.” Guthrie adds that the name Daesh “lends itself well to satire, and for the arabophones trying to resist Daesh, humour and satire are essential weapons in their nightmarish struggle.” In Guthrie’s article, al-Haj Salih asks “If an organization wants to call itself ‘the light,’ but in fact are ‘the darkness,’ would you comply and call them ‘the light’?” Al-Haj Salih adds that Daesh is a fictitious name for the nonsensical fictional concept proposed by the terrorist organization and thus serves the purpose of discrediting it.
As of December 2015, UK government ministers started referring to the militant group as Daesh but unfortunately the BBC has not followed suit. A BBC story in July of this year referred to the perpetrators of the siege and murder in Bangladesh as supporters of the “so-called Islamic State.” For me, a qualifier such as “so-called” should be reserved for something morally reprehensible such as honour killings. Although the name Daesh is widely used in the Arab world and has gained great currency in Europe it is not often employed in Canada or the United States. As far as I am aware, the only major North American political figure who employs the word is US Secretary of State John Kerry.
As language can be a powerful weapon of war, it is time for the anglophone world to join the coalition using the term Daesh. Let’s echo Voltaire and add words to the arsenal when combatting terrorists.