Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Lexigraphy for Dummies

This post appeared first at Mondoweiss. The image is from an entry in the children's alphabet book by Dr. Golbarg Bashi.

It is that time of year again when I lose sleep over the Time Magazine editors’ pick of the person of the year. For eighty years they have been wrong, I know. Even if the tradition hasn’t been around that long, I have and they should have invented it earlier. But no one seems to have given the fact of my suitability for the title much attention. I am not the only one boisterously vying for the title, I am afraid.
Then, as the smarting from that slap in the face for the eightieth time started to wear off slowly and I considered weaning myself off Melatonin, a new defeat arrived for me to ruminate on and stay up nights: “Youthquake” has been selected by Oxford Dictionaries as the 2017 word of the year. It is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people,” we are told. That sounds very much like what ‘intifada,’ the word Palestinian youth (or shabab as they like to call themselves) proudly called their uprising against the Israeli occupation, means. The two implied nuances of youthfulness and changing of the accepted order of things are there in the Arabic language source of the word. The verb “intefed’a” means to rise up in a motion that shakes off whatever bothersome condition existed before. It connotes the rising of the phoenix from the ashes. As a native speaker of the language the picture that lights up in my mind’s eye whenever I hear the term is that of a colt shaking the water off of its wet skin and perhaps splashing its rider next to it. Or that of a young lion exiting its lair, stopping to shake off the dust and laziness as it heads out for the hunt. Youthful energy is implied in the selection of the term. Old horses may shake the water off of their skin. But they don’t have the zing and rebellious vigor implied in the choice of the verb intefed’a. I don’t know about excluding old lions though. Like some people I know, lions don’t seem to age.
A technical explanation is in order here: The letter in the end syllable of the word is not the equivalent of the usual English letter ‘d’ known in Arabic as “Dal.” It is a harder sound made with the tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, not the upper teeth, and with the lips pursed. It is called D’ad, a sound sufficiently unique to the Arabic language for it to be known by that letter, hence “the language of the D’ad,” the romantic name Arabic native speakers proudly call their language.
Be that as it may, the resistance of the powers that be to acknowledging the noun Intifada as the new word of the year may well be in light of the word’s political background. For those who may have forgotten, it was first used in 1987 as the name for the uprising of the Palestinian youth against Israel’s then twenty-year-old occupation of their land. It bore further credence as a special phenomenon when journalists featured an iconic preschool child with stone in hand facing an Israeli tank. It gained further credence when Yitzhak Rabin gave the order to his soldiers to break the bones of those children and they went ahead and did exactly that on camera in the crudest of manners. When Rabin sued for peace and the likes of Sharon and Netanyahu blamed him for surrendering to the Palestinians and made him pay with his life for it, things got mixed up and somehow the intifada assumed a violent edge of incivility in the minds of Israelis and hence in the West. At the turn of the millennium when Sharon instigated a more violent and fanatic second intifada, violence stuck to the concept. Such violence-fraught interpretation probably underlies the aversion linguistic officials still have for the term today.
In my desperate search for acceptance of the term intifada in current usage I came across another justification for it as a kosher concept. I have fully retired from my public health career. Still, I keep track from a distance of what happens at the Center for Disease Control. Lo and behold, recently the CDC was instructed to avoid using a specific list of words  that the Department of Health and Human Services finds offensive or injurious. I felt elated not to find intifada among them. But I am back where I started, losing sleep again: The word ‘fetus’ is among the listed taboo terms. How will health professionals handle instructions and advise pregnant couples without using the word ‘fetus’? 
Come to think of it, pregnant Palestinian couples were at the base of the First Intifada. The peaceful essence and collective youthful leadership of that movement have been reignited in the world-wide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel movement. That is what outrages Zionists into a hair-pulling frenzy. All that is required of Palestinian BDS practitioners is to continue existing peacefully while refraining from harmful practices to themselves. The mere awareness of who they are makes the survival of Palestinians anywhere in the world an existential threat to Zionism. Or so thinks Steven Salaita in his review of the self-published children’s alphabet book, P is for Palestine, which has gone viral across the globe. Such existential anxiety is rooted in and reignites paranoia in committed genocidal aggressors against the indigenes anywhere. That is why the page in that book which Zionists find most objectionable is not the one declared in the title but rather ‘I is for Intifada.’ [The Word program on my computer appropriately corrects the phrase to ‘I am for Intifada.’] But that is to be expected given one of the shortlisted terms for Oxford Dictionaries word of the year 2017: “white fragility noun: Discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.” I find it especially appropriate to Zionism for its racist connotation. But then I can be accused here with another shortlisted word in the same source: “newsjacking noun: The practice of taking advantage of current events or news stories in such a way as to promote or advertise one’s product or brand.”
Golbarg Bashi, the unapologetic author of P is for Palestine is an Iranian refugee. You would think she could have been more civil to the Zionists. We in Israel have refrained from nuking her native country for so long you would think she could return the favor and make it ‘I is for Israel.’ Or, at least, “Z is for Zionism.” But then we all can presume aggression was part of her Islamic upbringing, right?
So, how about a compromise for next year? How about ‘Youthifada’ as the 2018 word of the year?

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