July 19, 2006

Cracking down on the Hezbollians

When President Bush was overheard telling Tony Blair, "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over," everyone latched on to Bush's use of a naughty, naughty word. But a broader foreign-policy implication of Bush's comment is that the administration continues to have trouble knowing how to deal with — or even conceptualize — non-state actors like Hezbollah. The solution offered by Bush is simply to have the United Nations (presumably the antecedent for "they") exert pressure on a recognizable nation-state, Syria, which is imagined as some sort of puppeteer pulling Hezbollah's strings.

But in remarks made yesterday Bush provided some linguistic evidence that he is prepared to treat Hezbollah not just as an entity controlled by a nation-state, but as the equivalent of a nation-state — or at least a major ethnonational group worthy of a toponymic suffix. From the man who brought us Grecians, Kosovians, and East Timorians... meet the Hezbollians. Here's the official White House transcript:

Listen, Syria is trying to get back into Lebanon, it looks like to me. We passed United Nations Resolution 1559, and finally this young democracy, or this democracy became whole, by getting Syria out. And there's suspicions that the instability created by the Hezbollian attacks will cause some in Lebanon to invite Syria back in, and it's against the United Nations policy and it's against U.S. policy.

(This is a sure bet to make Jacob Weisberg's "Bushisms," since even the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire made light of the President's neologism, under the heading "Vocabulary Lessen.")

Mark Liberman has observed that Bush's penchant for forming toponyms (or demonyms) with the -ian suffix would, in fact, be one way of regularizing a particularly confusing aspect of English morphology. But his use of Hezbollian suggests that Bush would take this linguistic reform beyond the usual suspects, to groups classified by the U.S. as terrorist organizations. So what Bushian quasi-toponym can we expect next? Hamasian? Talibanian? How about Al-Qaedian? And let's not forget Colombia's FARCians, Peru's Shining Pathians or Spain's ETAnians. Suddenly these groups don't seem so shadowy after all, made concrete and legible through the wonders of toponymic suffixation.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at July 19, 2006 11:27 AM