May 22, 2006

Euphony and usefulness

On the title page of a 1993 manuscript by John McCarthy and Alan Prince, "Prosodic Morphology I: Constraint Interaction and Satisfaction", was this epigraph:

"Bulgermander. It's more euphonious than Weldmander. Weldmander will never stick." William Weld, Governor of Massachusetts, on a redistricting plan he devised with Senate President William Bulger. Boston Globe, July 11, 1992.

Alas, neither Bulgermander nor Weldmander seems have stuck, since Google's index is currently ignorant of both coinages. However, I was reminded of Weldmander's alleged euphony problems by something Bernard Lewis said in a recent interview about the neologism Islamdom:

In talking of the Christian world ... we use two terms: Christianity and Christendom. Christianity means a religion, in the strict sense of that word, a system of belief and worship and some clerical or ecclesiastical organization to go with it. If we say Christendom, we mean the entire civilization that grew up under the aegis of that religion, but also contains many elements that are not part of that religion, many elements that are even hostile to that religion. ... In talking of Islam, we use the same word in both senses, and this gives rise to considerable confusion and misunderstanding. There are many things that are described as part of Islam, which are indeed part of Islam, if we take the word as the equivalent of Christendom, but are very much not part of Islam — are even alien or hostile to Islam — if we take the word Islam as the equivalent of Christianity. ...

The late Marshall Hodgson, of the University of Chicago, in discussing this issue, suggested that we use the word Islamdom to describe the civilization. A good idea, but it didn't catch on, probably because it's so difficult to pronounce.

As McCarthy and Prince recognized, this sort of explanation makes a lot of sense. It's plausible that some words, like craptacular and truthiness, have got the right sort of mouth feel to make it. But is it really lack of euphony that dooms almost all made-up words to the fate of glemphy and blang? Anyhow, Islamdom is by no means a total failure, since it gets 19,700 web hits on Google.

What happened to Bulgermander? Well, I guess that it referred to a small, local event whose general category already had the similar coinage gerrymander, so that there was little reason to retain it or generalize it. And Billy Bulger became president of UMass in 1996, and his brother James J. "Whitey" Bulger is still at large. So when "Prosodic Morphology I" was posted to the Rutgers Optimality Archive, as John McCarthy explained (p.c.), "cooler heads prevailed" and the epigraph was omitted.

John added:

By the way, the word "Islamdom" brings to mind my first exposure to the word "Islamism" in my youth. Once a month or so, we were made to recite this prayer:

This prayer is a rich tapestry of intolerance, what with the pairing of idolatry and "Islamism" followed by a couple of sentences on the blood guilt of the Jews.  The Protestants and the Orthodox get much milder treatment with their "erroneous opinions".

He's talking about this passage in the "Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus":

You are King of all those who are still involved in the darkness of idolatry or of Islamism; refuse not to draw them all into the light and kingdom of God. Turn Your eyes of mercy toward the children of that race, once Your chosen people. Of old they called down upon themselves the Blood of the Savior; may it now descend upon them a laver of redemption and of life.

At least it's a bit more welcoming than the Saudi-textbook language documented by Nina Shea in yesterday's Washington Post...

The OED dates Islamism to the middle of the 18th century, as a term for the religion we would now call Islam, a word which did not come into use until quite a bit later:

1747 Gentl. Mag. 373 Never since the rise of Islamism [note So the Mahometans call their own religion] has our worship once varied.
1754 Phil. Trans. XLVIII. 755 Before the introduction of Islamism into Arabia.
1855 MILMAN Lat. Chr. IV. i. (1864) II. 169 To subdue to the faith of Islam. Ibid. 213 The potentates summoned by Mohammed himself to receive the doctrine of Islam.

That's clearly the usage in the prayer that John cited. However, the American Heritage dictionary gives Islamism a very different and much more recent gloss:

1. An Islamic revivalist movement, often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life. 2. The religious faith, principles, or cause of Islam.

The Wikipedia article say that Islamism

attained its modern connotation in late 1970s French academia, thence to be loaned into English again, where it has largely displaced "Islamic fundamentalism."

Islamist, meaning "orthodox Muslim" or alternatively "one who is versed in Islamic studies", didn't arrive until the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries respectively:

1855 MILMAN Lat. Chr. XIV. iii. (1864) IX. 108 Caliphs who were, at least no longer, rigid Islamists.
1937 R. H. LOWIE Hist. Ethnol. Theory viii. 97 Westermarck is very widely read, and his original researches in Morocco, though only appraisable by Islamists, bear the earmarks of scholarship.

Again, the AHD offers a more contemporary sense of Islamist as the adjectival form of its noun Islamism, i.e. a certain type of Islamic fundamentalist.

Islamism and Islamist are certainly now successful words, as judged by their 2.4 million and 11.5 million Google hits, respectively. However, since "Islamic fundamentalism" also has 1.77 million Google hits, we can clearly reject the Wikipedia claim that Islamism "has largely displaced 'Islamic fundmentalism'" in English. In fact, on Google News as of yesterday afternoon, "Islamic fundamentalism" got 539 hits, and "Islamism" got only 259. On Yahoo News, "Islamic fundamentalism" got 154 hits, and "Islamism" got 78. I conclude from this that the terminological battle -- if it is one -- is still very much in progress.

In a May 12, 2005 blog entry "Onward, Christianist soldiers?", Ruth Walker wrote that

Google has rounded up 631 hits for me for "Christianist," along with the query, "Did you mean to search for 'Christiano'?" [...]

 I figure 631 hits for ‘Christianist’ is the Internet equivalent of seeing the first sliver of the sun coming up over the mountain in the morning.

Now, a bit more than a year later, {Christianist} gets 70,200 hits (though Helpful Google still asks "Did you mean: christiano"). Some of the increase has been promoted by Andrew Sullivan, who has started using the term frequently on his blog The Daily Dish. He has also adopted the nominal form Christianism, for example in his May 15, 2006 essay "My Problem with Christianism" (free version here for non-subscribers).

{Christianism} gets 592,000 Google hits, many more than Christianist -- but that seems to be because the term has a number of prior realms of use, both positive and negative.

Anyhow, my guess is that Islamdom as a term for "Islamic civilization" has failed, while Islamist as a term for "Islamic fundamentalist" has succeeded, not because of their relative euphony, but because of their relative usefulness.

[Update: Ben Zimmer writes

Marshall Hodgson introduced a number of neologisms in The Venture of Islam. He particularly liked the "-ate" suffix for nouns and attributives, as in "Islamicate", "Persianate", and "agrarianate". Other Hodgsonisms include "citied", "technicalistic", and "shari'ah-minded". Many of these terms continue to be used by Islamicists (as opposed to Islamists!) who begin their studies with Hodgson's three-volume classic.


[Update #2: I neglected to note (because I had forgotten) that William Safire wrote about Christianism and Christianist in his column of May 15, 2005 -- and I didn't find it earlier, because Google doesn't index behind the Times Select wall. I happened on it in a post by Tristero at Hullabaloo, which in turn I happened on because in an adjacent post he cited a recent post on mine on the striking similarities between a book review by Mark Steyn and a blog post by Geoff Pullum. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 22, 2006 05:41 AM