Monday, March 23, 2009

There is nothing new under the sun...

...but this is getting ridiculous. I'm starting to wonder if G.K. Chesterton might have dropped in one day to visit his friend H.G. Wells, and taken a spin in his Time Machine. This is from an essay in the Illustrated London News, dated June 12, 1909:
One impudent piece of pedantry I have noticed as very much on the increase--it is the habit of arbitrarily changing the end of abstract words (which are bad enough already) so as to make them sound more learned. I heard a young man, with thin, pale hair, speak some time ago at some Ethical Society; and words cannot convey the degree to which he drooped his eyelids whenever he said "Christianism," instead of Christianity. I was tempted to get up and tell him that what was the matter with him was Tomfoolerism, called by some Tomfoolerity, and that I felt an impulsion to bash his physiognomics out of all semblity of humanitude.

Well, Tomfoolerism would be the least of Andrew Sullivan's problems, but to be fair, he wasn't the first to make use of this trend (which is obviously a revival of an old fad), only the most obnoxious. I think the modern spate of neologisms started with Daniel Pipes and his popularization of the term "Islamism" after 9/11. It was a way of detaching problematic behaviour in the Muslim world, and leaving Islam itself unsullied. I always felt that this was a fishy bit of double-talk, and it ignored the built-in Doomsday Device right at the roots of Islam, but in those early days, there was hope that the problem could be isolated and quarantined, and the huge, insoluble headache of confronting an entire religion avoided.

Pipes didn't pretend to originate the term "Islamism" - it had been around for several decades in its present form, but he was probably the one most responsible for getting it into the mainstream.

Since then, the noxious habit of fancying up old words and pretending they're something new has spread. One that annoys me deeply is "Reformist", as used by David Frum and the Elevated Souls of the Republican Party. This is a particularly dishonest term, because it deliberately avoids the uncomfortable questions that would be produced by the genuine English term "Reformer", especially among Christians. If the Republican Party needs "reforming", then it must have fallen into error and corruption, but that is not a position likely to endear the "reformists" to the object of their reform efforts, i.e., the original conservatives in the GOP. So the new word allows them to pose in the armour of high-minded crusaders without actually facing their foes fairly.

Even the Swan of Newark is getting in on the act, but I don't think her innovation of "orthodents" or "orthodites" or whatever sneering neologism she's trying out this week will catch on. Indeed, anyone can play this game, if all one wants to do is show off one's own cleverness; I just came up with "heterodicks" to describe the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church (though maybe just "heredicks" would be better).


Blogger Daniel Muller said...

And here I thought that this exposition would culminate in the neologism "academician."

4:51 pm  

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