Old Rivalries, Old Words

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This post originally appeared at Columbia Journalism Review.

Byzantine emissaries to the Caliph. By Unknown, 12th/13th century author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Byzantine emissaries to the Caliphate. (Wikimedia Commons/Unknown, 12th or 13th century author)

From a language point of view, what’s happening in Iraq, Syria and environs has revived words that have not been common for many years.

One revival is “caliphate,” in the context that the Islamic insurgents now advancing in Iraq may be seeking to form one. “Caliphate” has appeared in Nexis more than 1,000 times in the past three months, but rarely before that. Usually it’s used as if readers know what it is. When a definition is given, it is usually “an Islamic state.” That’s accurate, but a bit oversimplified.

The “caliph” is the elected head of the Islamic “caliphate,” and, in theory, should have a direct tie to the Prophet Muhammad. The term “caliph” traces to Arabic words for “successor,” as in the successor to Muhammad. The first “caliph” was Abdullah ibn Abi Quhafa, or Abu-bekr, Muhammad’s father-in-law. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the English use of “caliph” to 1393; “caliphate” first appeared in 1614, the OED says.

A Google ngram, which traces words in books up to about the year 2000, shows that the use of “caliph” rose exponentially in the 1750s, though the reason is unclear:

For “caliphate,” the same spike appears, but there is a notable increase in the 20th century, with two more modern spikes, in the mid-1920s and the mid-60s. The most recent “caliphate,” the Ottoman empire, was abolished in 1924; the events surrounding its fall may help explain that spike. In the 1960s, the increased turmoil in the Middle East, including the Six-Day War, may help explain that spike.

“Caliphate” is much more common than “caliph”; people apparently prefer using the noun for the political system rather than for the ruler, since there hasn’t been one since 1924.

Another revival is “the Levant.” It also has appeared in Nexis more than 1,000 times in the past month (but only a handful of times earlier in the decade), nearly all in connection with the militant group that is advancing in the region. Some render the group’s name as “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or ISIL, while others call it “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” or ISIS. The Associated Press prefers the former, and pointed out in an article that the last word in Arabic is “al-Sham,” which translates as “Greater Syria” or “the Levant.”

What area actually encompasses “the Levant” is necessarily vague. Usually characterized as the “Eastern Mediterranean,” it was the term for most of what we now call “the Middle East.” Some experts say it includes modern-day Cyprus, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and part of southern Turkey; others include Iran (Persia) and all or part of Egypt; others exclude Cyprus; still others limit it to Israel/Palestine, Lebanon and parts of Syria and Jordan. Because the area predates any modern political borders, it can be adjusted, the way people can say they live in Chelsea in New York City when they really live in Hell’s Kitchen. And because what is “the Levant” is so vague (and sometimes disputed), it’s best to avoid its use unless necessary.

“Levant,” which the OED traces to 1497, comes from the French term for “to rise,” specifically the point where the sun rises. “Levant” is also an adjective for a kind of cloth or leather, or a wind from the east, or many other things that come from “the Levant.”

One acronym for the militant group, ISIS, is also the name of a principal Egyptian goddess. Isis was often referred to as the Queen of Heaven or the Goddess of the Earth, representing both life and death; she married her brother, Osiris, and is said to have given the Egyptians wheat, barley and beer. That’s interesting (but not ironic).

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years.
Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years.
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