April 30, 2017

Religious Designations

I was intrigued this afternoon by a discussion on the WNYC program On the Media involving the words “Jew” and “Jewish.” The point was made that, in some people’s minds, calling someone “a Jew” is demeaning. (The person asserting this was Jewish and didn’t mind the designation personally.) On the other hand, using “Jew” as an adjective—as in “Jew banker”—nearly always is an insult. It was suggested that politicians tend to use “Jewish” in order to avoid any possible negative implications. For example, a politician is more likely to say that someone “is Jewish,” rather than “is a Jew.”

The designations related to Judaism (or Jewish heritage, etc.) are odd in English. Words related to Christianity are not so problematic. For example, we say someone “is a Christian,” or we might refer to “a Christian banker.” Notice that (1) both the noun and the adjective are the same, and (2) neither phrase has negative connotations. (Well, mostly. For me at least, saying that someone “is a Christian radio commentator” might indeed suggest unsavoriness, but the adjectival form is mostly innocuous.)

Other religious designations operate mostly like “Christian.” Someone can be “a Muslim” or “a Muslim banker.” (“Muslim terrorist” is another matter—see below.) The religion itself is Islam, so usage differs somewhat from the Christian case, where the name of the religion is closely related. Also, we have the word “Islamic,” which we do not normally apply to people, except in cases where they have a formal or institutional relationship to the religion of Islam (e.g., “Islamic professor”).

I’m not sure why “Islam” and “Muslim” are seemingly unrelated. When I was young, I was taught about “Mohammedanism” and “Mohammedans.” These are seventeenth-century words, but “Islam” and “Muslim” seem to be somewhat older.

The related words “Islamism” and “Islamist” have taken on dark meanings in recent years. These have become specialized words related to a particular take on Islam. Mehdi Mozaffari, of Aarhus University, offers this definition of Islamism: “a religious ideology with a holistic interpretation of Islam whose final aim is the conquest of the world by all means.” Thus, we might speak of “an Islamist terrorist.” To speak of “an Islamic terrorist,” as do many Americans, President Trump most notably among them, is an unfair slur on the religion of  Islam.

Words related to Hinduism and Sikhism follow the usual pattern. Perhaps readers know of a religion whose related nouns and adjectives do not follow the usual pattern.

Most Christian denominations have words that follow the normal pattern (think Presbyterians, Methodists, Mormons, etc.) Episcopalians, as in many things, are different. We speak of “an Episcopal church” or “an Episcopal priest,” but an individual member of The Episcopal Church is “an Episcopalian.” Only the ignorant speak of “an Episcopal.” Go figure.

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