May 22, 2007

The global sausage on terror

An article in this month's Arts & Sciences magazine quotes Jamal Elias, my colleague here at Penn, as follows:

"Jihad doesn't really have a root meaning that has anything to do with war," Elias explains.

Professor Elias is referring to the fact that jihad is based on a root J-H-D whose core meaning is "to strive" or "to exert effort". But the funny thing is, war doesn't really have a root meaning that has anything to do with war, either. As the American Heritage Dictionary explains,

The chaos of war is reflected in the semantic history of the word war. War can be traced back to the Indo-European root *wers–, “to confuse, mix up.” In the Germanic family of the Indo-European languages, this root gave rise to several words having to do with confusion or mixture of various kinds. One was the noun *werza–, “confusion,” which in a later form *werra– was borrowed into Old French, probably from Frankish, a largely unrecorded Germanic language that contributed about 200 words to the vocabulary of Old French. From the Germanic stem came both the form werre in Old North French, the form borrowed into English in the 12th century, and guerre (the source of guerrilla) in the rest of the Old French-speaking area. Both forms meant “war.” Meanwhile another form derived from the same Indo-European root had developed into a word denoting a more benign kind of mixture, Old High German wurst, meaning “sausage.” Modern German Wurst was borrowed into English in the 19th century, first by itself (recorded in 1855) and then as part of the word liverwurst (1869), the liver being a translation of German Leber in Leberwurst.

Thus the use of war in English to refer to certain kinds of armed conflict is at least five centuries more recent than the use of jihad in Arabic for the same purpose. And English has some even more recent residues of the metaphorical shift from mixture to mayhem: to mix it up or to tangle with someone; a mêlée.

According to the OED, the word war has also been used since 1200 in a figurative sense, to describe "conflict between opposing forces or principles", as in

c1374 CHAUCER Troylus v. 234 Who kan conforten now youre hertes werre?

No one has written about the two kinds of war more vividly than that 18th-century salafist, William Blake -- though he didn't call them the "greater" and "lesser" forms of war, but rather "mental" vs. "corporeal" war. Here's the preface to his poem Milton:

The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid: of Plato & Cicero. which all Men ought to contemn: are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible. but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce: all will be set right: & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank, & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakspeare & Milton were both curbd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword.

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fash[i]onable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever; in Jesus our Lord.

This introduces the famous hymn:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets.

Of course, due to his neglect of corporeal war, Blake's followers are not known to have captured and held any English departments, much less any countries.

[Update -- Chad Nilep writes:

Of Jamal Elias's claim, "Jihad doesn't really have a root meaning that has anything to do with war," you suggest, "Professor Elias is referring to the fact that jihad is based on a root J-H-D whose core meaning is 'to strive' or 'to exert effort'."

The word "root" of course has many uses. Quoting an AHD entry on *wers- suggests the 'etymological source' meaning of root. I don't think, though, that Dr. Elias necessarily intended 'root' in the sense of 'historical source' or even 'semitic triliteral'. By "root meaning" he may have intended "basic meaning".

As you know, jihad means "to strive" and is often used by Muslims in the sense of striving to be a good Muslim. For some people, such as the Mujahidin and various so-called terrorist groups, this striving is military and/or violent. For many, though, jihad implies simply striving to be a good person or striving to avoid sin.

English "wurst" and "war" share a historical connection, but it is not obvious to contemporary speakers. The synchronic polysemy of "jihad" on the other hand, is probably obvious to Arabic speakers. (More to Dr. Elias's point, though, it is not apparent to consumers of English-language media.)

Well, the (often positively-associated) metaphorical uses of words like war, battle, fight, attack, etc. are also quite accessible to contemporary English speakers, so the "greater jihad"/"lesser jihad" idea is an easy one to understand, even if there are only about 30,000 Google hits for "greater jihad" compared to 13 million for plain "jihad". Anyhow, my point was only that the historical (or even contemporarily associated) meanings of a term are less important than how it is intended on particular occasions of use.]

[John Cowan observed:

Frye and Davies may not have *captured and held* the UToronto department, but they were certainly pretty important there for a long time. We can throw in McLuhan, too.


[Jay Cummings:

President Bush was widely criticized for using the word "crusade" prior to the formulation of "the war on terror". Crusade has long been used for non-violent struggles, usually with a moral underpinning. I think in modern usage it is an very good translation for most uses of "jihad" It can be construed as a literal holy war or as a moral struggle. Jihad, however, can mean an individual internal struggle, whereas crusade ordinarily would not.

Likewise, Arabic media should have translated the word as used by Bush, and most uses of crusade, as jihad. Perhaps Bush's writers should have foreseen the provocative choice not to, and the ensuing uproar. But that particular bushism never bothered me much.


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 22, 2007 07:37 AM