Your RDA of Irony

What’s in a Name?

Whenever we fight a war, we need a catchy nickname for our enemies. It is a therapeutic focus for our rage and a showcase of democracy’s creativity. Remember the winning epithets we used in the past. In World War I, we fought the Hun, a term that sums up German charm. Then Hitler obliged us with a contemptible name; you can’t say Nazi without sneering it. During the Cold War, we smeared our foes in Red. Now, we need to coin another memorable adjective for this new species of bastards.

Al Qaeda is hard to say and worse to spell. Furthermore, the term is parochial and excludes such other targets as the Taliban, Shiite militias and Iranian science projects. Our President tried to rally us against “evil-doers.” However, the term sounds comically quaint, as if it were the subtitle of a silent movie and the goal of this war was to rescue Mary Pickford from the clutches of Eric von Stroiheim. We needed a less campy term.

Responding to our epithet gap, the brilliant minds in Washington Think Tanks coined the scholastically impeccable “Islamo-Fascist.” Graduate seminars will forever be grateful. However, our armed forces will not. In the midst of a firefight, our troops might not have time or the taxonomic diligence to refer to their aspiring murderers as “Islamo-Fascists.” Back to the drawing board!

History provides a memorable term for a bloodthirsty, bigoted barbarian who threatens civilization. Unfortunately, the term is crusader. Aside from their incriminating ancestry, the crusaders have left us a variety of names for their foes. Let’s consider their arsenal of insults: Mohammedans, infidel or Saracen.

If, like the crusaders, we wanted a war with all of Islam, Mohammedan might earn us a jihad or an oil boycott. The name alludes to the medieval belief that Moslems worshipped a demon named Mahound. Even in an exorcised context, the word still offends Moslems, misinterpreting Islam as the worship of Mohammed instead of Allah. Just imagine the reaction and the remaining number of your teeth if you referred to Catholics as Papists.

Thanks to Hollywood, you would assume that infidel is the favorite Arabic epithet for everyone who skips Ramadan. On the contrary, very few Islamic bigots are conversant in medieval Latin. (Their curse of choice is kaffir, which translates to nonbeliever.) Infidel refers to anyone who does not share the designated dogma. The Crusaders applied the term and the sword to Moslems, Jews, Greek Orthodox and everyone else to the left of the Inquisition. Eight centuries later, the Pope is still apologizing.

The Greek word for the Arab Bedouin was Saracen. The Romans had a proud tradition of stealing Greek ideas. In turn, the Visigoths and the Franks had a proud tradition of stealing everything, including the Latin language. (Their various mispronunciations are now known as Spanish, Portuguese and French.) So Saracen ended up in the medieval vocabulary. During the Crusades, its sinister sibilance made Saracen a popular epithet for Moslems. However, the word has long since lapsed into obscurity. Now, it is only a Cliffnote for “Ivanhoe.”

We need a modern insult, one that is preferably accurate and enjoyable to say. The Arabic vocabulary offers us a number of possibilities. For instance, consider the ghoul. There is more to Arab folklore than dyspeptic jinni, endangered princesses and upwardly-mobile thieves. In stories unsuitable for Disney, the ghoul is a grave-robbing demon that feasts on corpses. It makes an apt epithet for terrorists, who subsist on death. The bilingual insult would define and deride our enemies, and nothing would be lost in translation.

We also might take the literal approach. If our enemies call themselves Jihadi, so could we. The difference would be in translation. They think Jihadi is a holy warrior. We know that it is a bloodthirsty fiend. But Jihadi has a phonetic liability as an insult. Say it aloud. Yes, the word is rather cute. It is rhythmic and peppy, and sounds like the name of a pop starlet. Worse, the President would inevitably pronounce it as “hottie.”

Another possibility would be to take a word out of context and distort it. (Liberal used to be a compliment.) Consider the fatwa. It is an edict from an Islamic court, but those edicts always seem morbid, repressive and misanthropic. Banning this, condemning that…there has yet to be a fatwa proclaiming Islamic Ice Cream Month. And the word fatwa is conveniently repulsive. Fat + wa make a gross, possibly obscene impression. Since our enemies love their fatwas, that might be the perfect epithet.

You probably expect me to decide on the deadliest nickname. It is too great a responsibility. We need a Manhattan Project for insults, polling the wits and mean streaks of linguists, speechwriters and comics. Our collective genius will forge Ivy League irony, adolescent cruelty and anglicized Yiddish into a succinct weapon of eloquence. Remember, this war is as much a marketing campaign as a military one, and we are fighting it with sound bites. We want the last word, so we have to make it a good one.

copyrighted 2006� (I’m too late.)

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    Eugene, you may have been beaten to the punch. Our soldiers have had a handy little catch phrase for all the brown people they’re killing for over a decade now.

    They call them “Hajis.” They call them “Hajis” in the Recruiting Centers. They call them “Hajis” in Basic Training. They call them “Hajis” in line for chow.

    They even make videos and songs like “Haji Girl,” where they celebrate shooting entire families.

    “Ghoul,” on the other hand, is already taken. If one feasts on dead human flesh, as a ghoul does, then one thereby profits by that dead flesh. There is no single person on earth more entitled to wear that moniker than “Big Time” Dick Cheney. For my part, I’m convinced that Cheney goes to sleep every night in a coffin deep in the bowels of the Naval Observatory, where there’s a spadeful of the soil from his native Wyoming to make it all just a little more “homey.”

  2. Dear Bob,

    I am honored by your visit.

    Now that you mention it, I have heard of haji but the term really has not spread to the general public. From a professional perspective, the epithet is efficient: brief and demeaning. I do hope that Halliburton doesn’t have the copyright.


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