Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bratwa on the bunny

Show of hands out there. Didja get it huh huh huh? Obviously the good folks at the New York Post expected you to, so this seems like a good time to see whether it worked.

For you newcomers out there, one of our many public services here is keeping an eye on the progression of "fatwa," which was a perfectly boring word meaning "answer to a question about religious law" until 1989, when -- by some accounts mistakenly -- it was applied to Ruhollah Khomeini's infamous decree that Salman Rushdie ought to be killed over "The Satanic Verses." It had a few years of running loose until, largely through the friskiness of the American press, it more or less meant "death sentence" in common usage.

Normally, I'm in the camp that doesn't see much point in having the incoming waves of language change whipped into submission, partly because whipping doesn't help and partly because language change isn't really such a bad thing after all. "Fatwa" is an interesting exception, because it really only works in conjunction with a bunch of frankly antediluvian cultural attitudes under which -- in a reversal of Those Zany Eskimos and their Zillion Words for Snow -- a billion and some people have a single word for "religious death sentence." 

That meaning had subsided for a while, largely because somewhere around late 2001, people on Our Side started giving fatwas that had nothing to do with other people's novelists. But it never went away, and in some circles (see if you can guess what they want you to think about scary people with funny headgear who go to church on Fridays), "fatwa" is still a word of choice for unhinged, irrational violence.

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