Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Playing with Language, Egyptian Style

This weekend, instead of an "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine, I contribute a piece to the Times's Week in Review section, on how Egyptian protesters have been playing with language to make their case that President Hosni Mubarak must go. (Given his defiant "non-resignation" speech Thursday night, he's not taking the hint. Update: He got the hint!) Though most of the wordplay in the protests is in Arabic, a surprising amount is in English.

Perhaps you've seen photos of signs and posters from Cairo's Tahrir Square, or from protest spots around the world, with such tech-savvy English slogans as "Mubarak Game Over," "Mubarak Fail," "Delete Mubarak," and "Mubarak is offline." This is, after all, a revolution born and bred on social networking sites, particularly Facebook. Google executive Wael Ghonim, recently released from 12 days in detention, was instrumental in kicking things off with a Facebook group called "We Are All Khaled Said," named after a protester allegedly killed by Egyptian police. The name of the group fits a familiar English pattern, "We are all X," often used for expressions of solidarity. (See here and here for earlier examples of the pattern.)

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Egypt-watchers have been giving new meanings to Mubarak's name. As reported by CBS News, the Internet entrepreneur Samih Toukan asked his Twitter followers to define how Mubarak should be used as a verb. (Verbing is popular way to make an eponym out a prominent person's name, as we've previously seen for Blagojevich, Salahi, Kanye, and Slater, to name a few.) Here is what Toukan's "tweeps" suggested:

  • 1) To fail to get the hint, regardless of how obvious it may be; 2) to farcically outstay one's welcome
  • to Stick something or to glue something. ex "i will punch u and Mubarak u to the wall"
  • To get stuck to a chair when u stand up
  • 'I invited a friend round for dinner last night, but they didn't leave till 12 despite my yawns. They really Mubaraked'
  • You are currently addicted and 'Mubaraked' to Twitter
(And now RC Richards informs me, via Twitter of course, that South Korean Twitter users are getting in on the act, coining the word Mubaraktic "to describe someone who 'can't take a hint' and 'tightly clings to chair/power.'")

My Week in Review piece focuses more on the language of the local protests, where English has played a recurring role as protesters seek to get their message out to the international media. Just this past week, doctors and medical students staged a rally, and their signs satirized Mubarak with medical English. One sign called for a "Mubarak-ectomy," while another called Mubarak a "malignant tumor" that needs to be "excised."

Depending how things shake out politically, Egypt may be heading for some dark days, but through it all I am sure that Egyptians will maintain their sharp sense of humor, with wordplay front and center — taking a light approach to language for very serious ends. The world will be watching.

Update: You can read my Week in Review piece here, and there's an associated slide show here.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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