The war in Iraq might leave us a new word to match a new sense of our own limitations
By Cullen Murphy
When worlds collide, the sparks are sometimes linguistic. Not long ago, in a Q and A on the Web site of The New York Times, an Iraqi translator was asked to explain the points of difference he saw between his own people and the Americans he encountered in Iraq. He brought up the Arabic phrase “inshallah.” The Americans, he said, “have respect for time”; Iraqis, in contrast, “use the word inshallah, which means ‘if God wishes,’ to postpone things.”
It may be that this point of difference won’t be a distinction much longer. An American colonel in Iraq, writing to The Washington Post’s Thomas E. Ricks, recently observed: “The phrase ‘inshallah,’ or ‘God willing,’ has permeated all ranks of the Army. When you talk to U.S. soldiers about the possible success of ‘the surge,’ you’d be surprised how many responded with ‘inshallah.’” The phrase seems to have permeated all ranks of the diplomatic corps, too: Zalmay Khalilzad, when he was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, once stated at a press conference, “Inshallah, Iraq will succeed.”
It’s a truism that words migrate because the concepts they connote have also migrated. When the Romans established commercial ties with the German tribes, introducing the idea of money, the Germans acquired from Latin the word they still use for “coin,” Muenze. They also took from the Latin word cauponor, meaning “to trade,” the word they still use for the verb “to buy,” kaufen. In both instances the words filled a vacuum. Will inshallah transplant itself to American soil?
Will it fill a need and find a home?
It can be perilous to generalize broadly about the United States. Journalistic lore cherishes the story of the English reporter— for The Economist, if I had to guess— who began an article with a continent-wide weather report: “It was raining in America on election day.” One editor I know forbids the use of the phrase “the typical American,” on the grounds that there’s no such thing as a typical American. But I’ll venture a generalized proposition anyway: that up to now, the typical American has not been the inshallah type.
By way of rebuttal, some may point to the pervasiveness of the slacker term whatever. This interjection, which even Bob Dole and John McCain have used, is not the same thing at all— it drips with impatience, irony, dismissiveness, disdain. Inshallah is something else—resigned, accepting, neutral, passive. It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It is the opposite of can-do. (“This is not an inshallah time,” warns General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.) And its spirit is nowhere to be found in America’s primal document, the one that begins with an aggressive flourish—“When in the course of human events”—and ends with the signatories pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to the Revolution.
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