Coining the language of war

Osama Raslan
Tuesday 14 Nov 2023

Linguistic science can suggest new words to push back against a one-sided and biased presentation of the Israeli war on Gaza, writes Osama Raslan



his article addresses, though partially, an aspect of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians. It is an aspect rarely deliberately theorised despite the fact that it is more far-reaching than others.

After all, news and media of various forms do transcend borders, broadcast areas, and warring parties. The linguistic aspect of the conflict is the one to which attention is drawn here.

Language is no less exploitable than any other medium, and an unmistakable dichotomy exists between the language used by the two sides. One need only make a list to show the unbridgeable linguistic barrier between them across all conflict-fuelling doctrines, be they religious, political, ideological, historical, or a combination of these.

This article is by no means intended to determine or judge such choices. However, an approach to how to develop the already established line of linguistic conflict is suggested below.

Since the Zionist occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, for example, the Western Wall has been given a religious tinge by calling it the Wailing Wall. The Wall is a portion of the ancient limestone walls of the Old City of Jerusalem forming part of the larger structure known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

For Arabs and Muslims, on the other hand, it is the Buraq Wall. The Buraq (Arabic al-boraq) is a creature in Islamic tradition that the Prophet Muhamed rode for his Israa and Mi’raj journey from Mecca to Jerusalem up through the heavens and back by night. For Muslims, during the Jerusalem stopover of this journey, the Buraq was tied to the Buraq Wall, hence the nomenclature.

Another example comes from the Israeli plans to build more settlements in the West Bank (and in Gaza up until 2005), fragmenting the Palestinian Territories and obstructing endeavours to establish a viable Palestinian state. Several Arabic translations have been suggested for these settlements. Mostly, the Arabic word mostawtanat is used, but critics argue that the Arabic root can be traced to the word watan, or homeland, and therefore could imply that the Israeli occupation is constructing “homeland” settlements.

Another suggestion is mosta’amarat, but critics argue that the root here is amr, or to positively construct, which is a divine teaching for Muslims. Of course, these Israeli settlements cannot be depicted as homelands or positive constructions, so another suggestion was needed. This is moghtasaba, or usurped territory, though this has been only narrowly adopted.

The list of contentious terms goes on, especially as much of the Occupied Territories within historic Palestine have had their native inhabitants supplanted, their history wiped out, and their names given Zionist-Jewish implications.

These measures and countermeasures reflect a mindset of cultural vigilantism in which subtle points and considerations are battlegrounds. As each party seeks its own linguistic narrative, the victorious party is the one that manages to achieve linguistic consensus, something, which achieved, becomes almost unstoppable. It is a two-party multi-level process of linguistic bugbearing and counter bugbearing, so to speak.

In a world of linguistic globalism, such cultural vigilantism remains inevitable. Otherwise, a state of lingua-cultural insecurities would be equally inescapable. From a wider perspective, the Arab-Islamic culture has been, and still is being, demonised and dismissed as a kind of raging ocean of Islamist terrorism, jihadism, Sunni terrorism, Islamist-provoked destruction, and many other similar linguistic irritants. Meanwhile, the other party to the conflict, Zionist Israel, is being provided with all forms of military, political, economic, financial, media, and legal support.

The spread of charges of anti-Semitism against those criticising Israel is just one form of such all-out support. As a result, ready-made, anachronistic, and illogical accusations and indictments are on the rise.

It is necessary and beneficial sometimes to widen the battlefield into new arenas. One way forward is to use linguistic science in order to come up with new words to push back against the processes highlighted above. Storms of criticism can stifle sensible consideration and, more importantly, responses. Mounting jeremiads against “the enemy” are neither adequate nor helpful. The following are examples of what can be done to develop a counter linguistic narrative and establish a new linguistic response.

Genocide (the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group) is an accusation that has been made against various parties over the decades, but it is one that has seldom resulted in legal process. Linguistically, the word was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Marking the crime of all crimes under international law, genocide consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing.

The times we are going through require a similar coining with different components and for a different purpose. My suggestion is Ziocide, in other words, a genocide committed by Zionists. Zio comes from Zionism, and cide is known already. It can be used as a noun (n) or as a verb (v), such as the Ziocide (n) in Gaza has claimed more than 9,000 lives so far, and thousands have been ziocided (v) in Gaza.

Another linguistic response to current events in Gaza could be the coining of the word Ziobellum (n), in other words a belligerent, violent stance adopted by Zionists against others. Bellum is a demon of war in Graeco-Roman mythology – and needless to say, the Graeco-Roman culture is the cultural basis of which the Zionism-sponsoring West proudly claims to be the descendent.

One more suggestion is Zioheid, namely, Zionist apartheid, a noun owing its coining to the prefix Zio and the suffix heid. It is coined after apartheid, a word dating back to the 1940s (from Afrikaans, literally “separateness,” from Dutch apart, “separate” and the suffix heid (equivalent of -hood)). Zioheid is unequivocally being practised against the Palestinians.

A further suggestion is Zio-information (n), or Zionist disinformation. The lies spread by the Zionists and supportive world leaders and media outlets have been striking throughout the unfolding aggression on Gaza. They deserve such a coining in return.

One more suggestion is HoloGaza (n), along the lines of Holocaust (from Greek holos (burnt) and kaustos (sacrificial offering)). Whatever atrocities were committed during the Holocaust in Europe, commensurate ones have been, and still are being, perpetrated by the Zionists. The current aggression on Gaza is still unfolding, but from day one Israel has rushed to its Western lifelines for military, financial, and political help. This is an act of Zio-parasitism.

Further suggestions can be made. My MS Office Word programme is red-underlining my suggestions as cases of solecisms or malapropisms. But at a time when all lines are being crossed in real-blood red, these suggestions are mere appurtenances of the Arabs’ inalienable rights.

Every Arab, and every free and righteous person in the world, has a role to play, not least in relation to language use. Where an enemy goes for stigmatisation, there is a need for a commensurate counteroffensive.

The difference is that ours does not involve any form of disinformation, unlike their Zio-information. Ours is self-sustained, but theirs marks a full-scale case of Zio-parasitism. Ours is a legal outcry for self-determination, but theirs is Zioheid.

It is high time that these linguistic suggestions, and others like them, are mainstreamed as part of a sustained and consistent media discourse.


The writer is supervisor of the English Department at Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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