Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Language, dog-whistles, and extremism

I often read the blog entries over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars each day. Ed usually posts four or five short posts in the morning, and I almost always find the posts interesting, and I enjoy reading (and sometimes contributing to) the commentary; the other commentators there are (usually) civil enough.

There was one entry today -- "Those Scary Muslim Words" -- that was one of those posts that really made me want to post a reply... and upon greater reflection, to cross-post it here.

Ed quoted from a story from the NYTimes about people in the Phoenix, AZ area who didn't like the fact that the massive sand and dust storms that had hit them twice this year had an Arabic name: "haboob". Never mind that the Arabic words are not Muslim words, but some people were making that conflation, and going to extreme lengths of politically charged language to try and pressure someone (I don't know who) to change the use of the word (much like the silly change of name from "french fries" to "freedom fries" on the Congressional cafeteria menus way back in 2002):
"I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob," Don Yonts, a resident of Gilbert, Ariz., wrote to The Arizona Republic after a particularly fierce, mile-high dust storm swept through the state on July 5. "How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?"
Many of the commentators did -- admittedly -- focus on this comment, showing how much of a boob Don Yonts was with regard to the haboob. Many extended the comment that Ed made in his blog:
As Adam Serwer points out, there are lots of words we use every day that are rooted in Arabic words: sofa, admiral, magazine, mattress and many more. And for God's sake, don't let grandma knit any more afghans. Those poor soldiers will be so offended!
To this, I just had to also throw in my attempt at showing how silly such reasons for not using a particular word were. If "haboob" was just too much of a "Middle Eastern term", then why not try to expunge other words from Arabic? My comment tried to highlight the extent to which Arabic words already exist quite commonly within the English language, even though England wasn't overrun by Muslim hordes during the Crusades:
Well, I suppose we ought to get rid of all those loanwords from Arabic. 
I mean, we can't have soldiers, sailors, generals or admirals getting into their alcohol (especially apricot schnapps or mint juleps). I mean, the haboob has also affected farmers' alfalfaartichokes, Pima cottonlemonslimesspinachtangerines and oranges, and so referring to it using such a vulgar word could make them feel even worse. The dust could also have infiltrated jars of coffeejasminesugar and other foodstuffs (and your candy, too), and no one appreciates gritty foods.
I mean, the word is almost just a garble of sounds that you can't barely decipher! I have zero tolerance for this sort of a racket. This will end up being an albatross around the necks of our poppinjay leaders! Throw down your magazines! Get off your sofas! Get off your mattresses! March out of your alcoves and your adobe colored houses! This is checkmate!

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