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Fighting Words 

Rosie Right

We know that words are powerful. We were reminded of this when President Bush used the word crusade to describe our fight against terrorism. Clearly, he meant the second meaning we find in Webster's New World Dictionary, Fourth Edition: "vigorous, concerted action for some cause or idea, against some abuse." Unfortunately, the first meaning is "any of the military expeditions which Christians undertook from the 11th to the end of the 13th cent. to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims." Thus, the word is a hot button in the Middle East where the Christian Crusaders didn't act with mercy. Not exactly a word that encourages Arabs to ally themselves with the Western countries.

There are other words we need to understand. Take Taliban. This wasn't included in the large Oxford English Dictionary published in 1989. And it was not even in the more recent Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide (1999). Still, in the American Desk Encyclopedia (Oxford in 1998), there's an entry for Taliban: "Radical Sunni political movement in Afghanistan. In 1996, from their headquarters in Kandahar, in South West Afghanistan, Taliban militia launched themselves on Afghan society, vowing to spread Sharia (Islamic law) throughout the country. … Taliban's philosophy is drawn from extremist theologians in Pakistan and other Arab countries."

An interesting article in the New York Times by Barry Bearak reports that the movement started in 1994 when a "a few dozen taliban, or religious students" banded together and became an armed militia. The word will doubtless be in all future dictionaries.

The next question may interest only copy editors like Rosie, but it does interest her: Should the word be spelled Taliban (New York Times, Washington Post and most U.S. publications) or should it be Taleban as it is in the International Herald Tribune and a number of other European newspapers? Rosie asked the editor of the IHT why they used Taleban. He told us:

"We began spelling it Taleban because that was the way the official Taleban Web site, www.taleban.com, was spelling it. Since then, the American news organizations that we use as our sources have been using Taliban, which means we change it each time. ... We are now considering whether to have our style conform with that of the New York Times and The Washington Post. By the way, the Taleban Web site hasn't existed for quite a while."

Since the word is a transliteration, I suppose we can take our choice, just so we remain consistent. Incidentally, Taliban is a plural noun. (Encarta Dictionary).

We also write about the Koran. This, again, is a transliteration from another alphabet; in English it is also spelled Quran and Qu'ran. Style will follow the AP's ruling on the spelling: Quran. Norm Goldstein, who edited the AP Stylebook, tells us: "AP changed its style on the spelling of Quran … because of two primary reasons: (1) Our writers and editors who deal the most with Islamic stories felt the Quran spelling had become familiar enough to readers and had been accepted in the religious and academic community with that spelling (although we felt the apostrophe, Qu'ran, would only confuse readers). (2) Muslims felt the Quran spelling was more phonetically and grammatically correct, since in Arabic it is pronounced "Qur-aan," with a very long "A" and the "Qur-" is pronounced
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