The biblical land of Moab was a mountainous but fertile region to the east of the Dead Sea, occupying an area covered by modern Jordan today. The area was settled by the Moabites, the descendants of Lot’s incestuously conceived son Moab. Most of our knowledge of Moab comes from the Bible, which attests to a relationship with its neighbours which veered from friendly to hostile. While there is little knowledge of life and propserity with Moab, the territory’s survival throughout the period of the Old Testament suggests a level of stability.
Until now, think Moab in the Middle East, think of the Bible. But that is no longer true.
Even though the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast has been in existence since 2003, it is a fair bet that most of us had never heard of it. But following the dropping of the Mother of All Bombs in Afghanistan this week, MOAB as it is known is dominating the agenda. In modern minds, the location of MOAB in the Middle East is now Afghanistan. The geographical resonance of the word has changed.
The Moab of ancient times didn’t lead to the significant destruction of any major populations. Let us hope that its 21st Century namesake does not lead to a different outcome.
As US election year dawns, so the role of language in the campaign will come to the fore once more. During the 2012 election campaign, I wrote about how the finding of the right word could potentially swing the entire poll, while also noting how Mitt Romney’s travails with language could have contributed to his dismal final result.
So it’s disappointing to note that in the 2016 version so far, the times that language has come to the fore have been more the subject of ridicule and controversy than anything else. Last month it was Donald Trump and his use of the term schlonged. This time around, Trump is still at the centre of things, but even more central to events is Sarah Palin.
It is the use of the word ‘Squirmish’ which has caused all the fuss this time. In her much-dissected endorsement of the Republican front-runner, Palin referred to squirmishes happening around the world, meaning a kind of low-level skirmish. Interestingly, after the inevitable initial amusement, criticism and Twitter reaction, there seems to have been an almost grudging respect for the term. Some have said they find it actually quite useful, while dictionary.com used it as a way to discuss the way that words are introduced in election campaigns generally, while also saying Palin was not the first person to use it.
While I doubt that Palin was aware of the 19th century citations to which dictionary.com alludes, and whether it was a deliberate neologism or a cock-up, there is no doubt that squirmishes has emerged as the first word of this year to be associated with the campaign, and it appears to have a certain amount of momentum to keep it in the public domain for at least a few weeks.
I suppose the level of squirmishes between the candidates might dictate how long it stays current for.
The language of political debate has always fascinated me, and the way that the choice of words can influence the direction of a campaign can never be underestimated.
How disappointing then that when the subject of language comes to the fore in the American Presidential campaign, it should be over the nuances of a crude piece of Yiddish. But how much less surprising that Donald Trump should be at the centre of it.
Basically, Trump voiced the opinion that Democrat rival Hillary Clinton had been ‘schlonged’ by Barack Obama in the 2008 election. He claims to have used it as a term for ‘beaten’, claiming it was just a description for her having lost out. But as has been demonstrated widely online in the last few days, ‘schlong’ is Yiddish slang for penis, and the verbal form of that is not exactly common usage in the way that Trump claims. Cue much debate about the grammatical rules behind creating a verb from a noun, analysis of just how little usage schlonged has had over the years and fortunately very little linking to the Urban Dictionary definition of the term.
Questions have also been asked over whether Trump genuinely thought that his use of the term was correct, or whether it was actually a sexist put-down and therefore much more deliberate. I think the jury is out on this point, but regardless of whether it was intended or accidental, the put-down element is unavoidable and has been fundamental to the discussion that this comment has created.
So what does this mean for the future of English – is schlonged going to emerge as a new piece of widely used Yiddish slang, or will it just be something talked about purely in the context of this Trump/Clinton contretemps.
My instinct is the latter. Trump is such an extreme and divisive character, it is hard to imagine a term that he has used taking off widely, as people will not want to be associated with it, especially as it is a long way from being an innocent put-down. I think it is likely to be a term that is remembered, but not one that enters everyday use. It is however a shame that one of the first linguistic stories of the campaign is this one.
And if Trump’s campaign ends with him losing, I wonder how the competition will refer to his defeat?
I think my language antennae have had an off day. I’d seen reports claiming that Donald Trump had coined a new word, yet when I read it, I was convinced that he’d done nothing of the sort.
Speaking about the Oscars, and specifically the Vanity Fair party, he described it as boring and “symblomatic” of what was happening at the magazine overall.
Fine, I thought, symblomatic means ‘acting as a symbol of something’, and is a perfectly well-known word. Googling it found a few sporadic uses from the last few years.
But is it a real word? No. Is it in any dictionaries? No. Is it likely to be in dictionaries any time soon? Well, on that one, you never know. I think it is actually quite a useful word and can’t currently think of a viable alternative.
But then again, that could just be symblomatic of the fact that my language antennae are having a really bad day.
(The ‘symblomatic’ moment is at about one minute, 13 seconds. I’m sure Mr Trump won’t mind if you keep the sound turned down prior to that moment).