Is’t confusing?

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The tragic events in Algeria have once more brought the words Islamist and Jihadist (should they be capitalized or not?) into the news.

Two things strike me – first, where is the stress on Islamist? The ‘rule’ in English is that the suffix –ist does not change the stress position of the stem to which it is added, so bal’loonist, ‘physicist, ‘naturalist (stressed one, two, or three syllables before the suffix, respectively). For Islamist, this, then, gives the alternatives ‘Islamist and Is’lamist, depending on how the individual pronounces the word Islam. I’ve heard both from BBC newsreaders and journalists, with a preponderance of initial stress – one Radio 4 newsreader changed from second to first syllable stress between bulletins during the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4 one morning. To my ear, initial syllable stress sounds more euphonious, but that is a totally unscientific observation, and inadmissible as evidence! Jihadist, on the other hand, is always stressed on the second syllable, in conformity with the ‘rule’ stated above – at least that is what my ears have been telling me, although maybe someone can give me a contrary example? The confusion (if that is what it is) over Islamist is not helped by the frequent use of the word Islamic, which is stressed on the penultimate syllable in accordance with the normal treatment of adjectives ending in -ic. (There are exceptions, such as catholic and lunatic, but most ‘exceptions’ are nouns rather than adjectives – arithmetic, arsenic, rhetoric.)

Second, what is the meaning of –ist? Bear with me while I make an apparent digression.

When the OED 2nd edition was first published, I was struck by the number of obscure words mentioned on the spines of the twenty volumes: Volume I: A to Bazouki; Volume II: BBC to Chalypsography; Volume IV: Dvandva to Follis. I took down volume 1, and looked at Bazouki. This was described as an error for bouzouki (and bazouki doesn’t appear in the online version of OED3). The preceding entry was bazoum – jocular for bosom. One of the examples was from the ”Washington Post’ (spelt ‘bozoom’ in this case), which also included the word titism. Needless to say, I looked up titism (after all, the first rule of lexicography is that every word used in a definition should itself be defined). There was no such entry. As it was presumably being treated as a nonce word (i.e. created for this specific newspaper article), this was understandable. But neither, under -ism, was there any definition that covered (if you’ll excuse the word) such an occupation(?), attitude(?) or whatever.

Now you can see where I’m going with this. –ist is in the same situation: there is at present no definition of this suffix which accounts for titist, or even sexist or racist. The definitions so far given are

1) Forming a simple agent noun derived from a Greek verb in -ίζειν, and often accompanying an English verb in -ize.

2) Designating a person who practises some art or method, or who prosecutes, studies, or devotes himself to some science, art, or branch of knowledge (the meaning of Jihadist).

3) Designating an adherent or professor of some creed, doctrine, system, or art (the meaning of Islamist).

4) One whose profession or business it is to have to do with the thing or subject in question.

The online OED says that the entry for –ist has not been fully updated, and was first published in 1900. I think we can assume that when the letter -I is reached, this lack will be addressed.

One Comment

  1. No wonder no-one has yet commented sev·ral days after the appearance of this int·resting but rather indigestible item — it’s enuff material for half a dozen posts.
    Anyway, I think most folk say /`ɪzlÉ™mɪst/ and /ʤɪ`hɑːdɪst/ tho I spose some say /ɪz`lɑːmɪst/. By the way, I deplore the BBC Guide recommendation to their speakers to use /ɪs`lamɪk/ inste·d of /ɪz-/ presumably from having inappropriately accepted requests from The British Council of Muslims who wd be best advised not to comment on matters of English speakers’ use of their own language.

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