What's in a Word?


Khodadad Rezakhani
by Khodadad Rezakhani

It is quite fascinating to notice, pay real attention to, the meaning, or actual content, of the words and expressions we use every day. I have been fascinated with this issue since the first time I heard my mom telling me that "sechoir" (hair-dryer) is French. Sometimes, you hear words that are made up of two or three other words, and when you stop and think about them, they become truly fascinating. How often do you stop and think about the word airport and notice that it is made up of air and port and realise that there is also a sea-port, and there somewhere should be a land-port as well! You also hear the term "that book is the bible of that field" or "that place is the mecca of ..." and you immediately understand that the book in question is the main source of a particular set of information, or that a certain place is an important center for a particular purpose.

We don't often think of words that we use. We know their meaning, we hear them, we use them, and we communicate through them. We sometimes say things that are "politically incorrect". All of us have to remind ourselves not to use the N word, or if you are a Persian speaker, not to call your Jewish friends with the J word. I always have to stop myself not to call one of my favourite childhood sweets "Negro-kiss" (they are now called shoko-kiss). Occasionally, we also use words that have purposely been put there to convey a certain meaning. The word "swift-boating" was created after the 2004 elections in order to describe a certain method of discrediting one of the candidates of the US Presidential campaign. Often meaning of certain words are changed to reach political, religious, or social goals, like the word liberal (essentially meaning "free-acter") which is now used as a dimunitive in the American politics.

So, all these made me think of a word today, and that is "crusader". A crusader was a western European knight, and sometimes layman, who because of the economic recession in turn of the millenium Europe, undertook a religious-military pilgrimage. The crusaders ultimately wanted to "liberate" the Holy Land (Palestine, Canaan, Israel, the Biblical Lands, etc.) from the Muslims, whom they considered to be infidels. In the process, which was mildly successful, they raped, pillaged, and destroyed many peoples, towns, and buildings. In their fourth effort, the Crusader actually just took over Constantinople, the capital of the very Christian Byzantine Empire, and destroyed many of its historical sites, killed its emperor, and committed atrocities that have to be read to be believed. In short, a crusader was not a very desirable character and he often conjured up pictures of violence, dirtyness, and illiteracy in the minds of mediaeval Europeans, not to mention the Muslims.

However, now the word crusader has been rejuvinated to mean a good thing, an enthusiast, a brave vigilante who takes upon her or himself to correct a wrong, someone who tried to do something right. The Masked Crusader is one of the best examples of it, as Batman is called. Everyday people are called crusaders too, one is the AIDS crusader, another is human rights crusader, and so on and so forth. We hear this, use it, and think nothing of it. It never occures to us to think of a modern day crusader as a dirty, violent, and illiterate person, the way the actual crusaders were. The issue becomes even more interesting when you consider that while the name crusader has a meaning of "a vigilante, the one who tries" in our minds, it actually comes from the word Cross. However, think of the same word in Arabic, "someone who tries"... well, it is Mujahid, right? From the root JHD, which also gives us the dreaded Jihad! Now, how has that been illustrated? People who work in Jahad-e Sazandegi (Jihad for Construction, an Iranian government created organisation) are not "Jihadists". The word Mujahideen (with a particular emphasis on the "ee") is used often in the English speaking media. It makes you think of Al Qaeda. Would you trust if someone is called "The Masked Mujahid" or "AIDS Mujahid"? Compare the visions of the Masked Crusader with a supposed masked mujahid.

Beware the power of words!


more from Khodadad Rezakhani

power of words

by Tahirih on

 "" Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom . Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the  speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible.   One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility.""  Regards, Tahirih 



by Aziz (not verified) on

Briefly: I feel compelled to reply to Khodadad in the spirit of friendliness and respect:
As I implied already: The article appeared empty and just a play of words and going nowhere - to me. It just bothered me. The "proposition" is that the words are not "neutral" and are charged with nuance and hidden meaning beyond their innocent equivalents we find in lexicons. May be this is not what you intended and therefore I should withdraw my objection.

Why all this:?? Because like it or not I have become addicted to "Iranian.com" and take the articles in it seriously, this is where one can sense the pulse of a self-exiled community to which I belong.

Khodadad Rezakhani

Not at all

by Khodadad Rezakhani on

Thanks for the comment. Not at all, I don't think it was nasty, nor do I take offence. I, however, think you are making a little presupposition here. This is a "blog", which for me, it means a collection of random thoughts, not necessarily well-thought out theses and essays. If you notice, my personal blog is called Arzyabiye Shetabzadeh (Rushed Surveys), and that is how I have been writing weblogs for over 7 years now. I didn't even submit this as an "Article" to Iranian.com. It is just a quick thought, even a funny one, starting from me trying to think of a Muslim counter-part to Batman (the Masked Crusader). So, don't take it too serioulsy or try to find a thesis in it.

I couldn't understand one comment however. Admitting that I am not the first person to think of this (there is a UC Berkeley based think tank working on language and politics), i still don't get the comment "the proposition he is proving was proven long before the crusaders started their journey". What proposition? That "crusader" will come to mean a good thing? That will be highly unlikely...



by Aziz (not verified) on

I hesitate to write this. I hope Khodadad will not be too upset.
Everyone knows Words are powerful because they can convey profound thoughts and for their magical flexibility when a skillful author pens stirring passages that moves the reader (read Abraham Lincoln). Not new.

Khodadad writes incoherently on topics such as: 1-languages borrow words from each other and 2-Crusaders where filthy adventurers and 3-the root of "JHD" has been conjugated to form names for groups with opposite agendas and etc etc etc.
None of this has any common thread or adds up to any proposition that the reader can make head and tail of. AND Besides: the proposition he is proving was proven long before the crusaders started their journey. I hope he will put more effort to his work in future. This is nasty, But I wish him well.


thought provoking

by IRANdokht on

I think most words meanings change with time. There used to be a time when the word ommat reminded me of Khomeini's speeches and made me angry, now I think of iranian.com comments section and I find it funny...  another example would be the word elite. I remember how this word had a positive meaning of educated and high class, and in a short while it became an insult. The same thing happened to the word liberal, to the point that even people with liberal views are afraid of being labeled with it.

These are quick changes  compared to some other words that have changed throughout the times.

Wait a few centuries (or even sooner) and maybe Mojahed would lose its negative connotation too. 

I like your writing and your reasoning. Looking forward to reading more from you.