Culture: May 2007 Archives

It's sometimes said that the word 'jihad' in Arabic derives from a word for striving and thus doesn't mean war or holy war. Mark Liberman points out that the English word 'war' is also derived from a root that has nothing to do with war, although in this case it is confusion rather than striving. It's easy to see how either might eventually end up meaning war. (It's a little more difficult to see how the etymological root of 'war' eventually became the German word for sausage.) But both words do actually mean war.

Now, as Mark acknowledges, this doesn't stop people from using either word metaphorically to refer to something else. Muslims do use the word 'jihad' to refer to an inner, spiritual quest that involves struggling to be a good Muslim, but in fact the English word 'war' can also be used in such a metaphorical way, as can several other words that literally mean violent conflict. Some words have even more commonly come to mean nonviolent moral missions (e.g. 'crusade') and hardly ever mean war.

I have no problem if a Muslim wants to use the word 'jihad' in this way. I'd be much happier if all Muslims did no more than go through inner struggles in their personal jihad. I do have a problem if someone wants to pretend that the word never means "holy war" or especially the historically revisionist line that Muslims never meant it as war. I do have a problem if someone tries to act as if this nonviolent use of the word is standard in a way that nonviolent uses of the word 'war' are not. But even aside from the parallels between the two words, I think it's worth resisting the etymological fallacy that takes a word to mean something simply because it was derived from an archaic root that means that. The classic counterexample of 'butterfly' in English comes to mind. It doesn't have much to do with butter or flies.

Abortion Doctors

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I've read a number of criticisms of Justice Kennedy's decision in Carhart v. Stenberg, which upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban. One theme I've seen several times is the claim that Kennedy's use of the term 'abortion doctors' is somehow pejorative and inappropriate. In fact, this meme seems to have initiated with Justice Ginsburg's dissent. See here for Justice Ginsburg's words in making this criticism.

When I first read about this, it seemed an unfair and illegitimate complaint, but I didn't really spend much time thinking about it or looking at the use of the term 'abortion doctor'. I decided to look around a little when I saw this post by Stuart Buck, which points out that one person now making this complaint had only two years earlier used the same expression in an entirely positive context. I did a Google search for "abortion doctor" OR "abortion doctors". Here are some of the results.

1. a directory of abortion providers
2. someone's explanation "Why I Am An Abortion Doctor"
3. a 1998 CNN news story about the murder of an abortion doctor
4. a 2003 AP news story about the execution of someone who killed an abortion doctor
5. the entry for the book associated with #2
6. a 1997 pro-choice website seeking to organize the pro-choice movement against a murder charge an abortion doctor was facing
7. a 2003 Fox News story about the same events of #4 above
8. a 2007 Los Angeles Times piece on an aspiring abortion doctor still in medical school, which I have to note is (a) very positive about her and (b) significantly after the Kennedy opinion
9. another article about the 2003 case, this time hosted at a site about dangeous cults that places this killer in a larger category of anti-abortion extremists
10. an abortion provider directory at, which as far as I can tell has removed whatever reference it had that placed it in the listings for this Google search

What would you describe as the typical Disney family model? Jae Ran Kim points out how frequently the main character of Disney movies has either an absent or dead parent (or two absent or dead parents), among other unusual anomalies that should be surprising for a line of children's entertainment. I think the only one in her pretty long list to have both parents raise her ends up a cross-dresser.

This isn't necessarily a criticism. This particular story device often simply makes for a good story. But doesn't it seem excessive for Disney to be so overwhelmingly like this? Or is this more common in children's stories in general than we notice? Since we generally don't notice it with Disney, maybe that's so. But why don't we notice it, if we don't?



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