tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Politically incorrect crossword clue puzzles Arabs and campers alike

At the Tuque Souq we welcome any opportunity to break out the dictionaries and reference books to get to the heart of linguistic, orthographic, or connotative conundrums; especially those that have the potential to ruffle our polite and demure Canadian feathers.

And ruffled, indeed, were those feathers last October 5 when I arrived at the clue for 59-Down of the Toronto Star’s crossword puzzle (page L7 for those of you fact-checking at home).

The clue: “Tent dweller.” The answer: Four letters. The second letter was “r” (to match the second letter of 63-Across: “irate”). The last letter: “b.” The first letter: “a”… you get the picture.

The “tent dweller,” it seems, is an “Arab.” Or crosswordlier put, “tent dweller” is an accepted definition or synonym for “Arab.” Huh?

[Full disclosure: At the Tuque Souq, we love crosswords. I do them almost daily. I have books of them. I sometimes dream in black-and-white squares into which my own parallel universe is neatly divided. In my interning days at The Walrus magazine, I volunteered each month to fact-check the crossword puzzles, just so I could gain further insider knowledge of their logic and mechanics; a precious advantage on my way achieving crossword Nirvana.]

Back to dwellers of tents… The only time I’ve heard Arabs referred to as tent dwellers is in the obvious derogatory way, similar to phrases that involve, e.g., “towels” and “heads,” or “camels” and “jockeys.” Surely the Toronto Star (okay, the database from which the Star plucks its weekday crosswords, which obviously aren’t edited for borderline racial slurs) would never attach its name to what is, at best, the Arab equivalent of “raw-meat eaters” (which is the origin of the word "eskimo").

I called up my regiment of dictionaries: the Hans Wehr, al-mawrid al-waseet, Oxford Arabic, the OED, the COD, the M-W… Okay word experts, show me an “Arab” tent dweller.

To no surprise, in these esteemed collections of truth and meaning there was no word or phrase for the Arabic triliteral consonantal root ʿayn-ra-ba (from which we get the Arabic word ʿarab and the English “Arab”) that connected said word to “tent dweller.” Nor was there an English dictionary brave enough to define an ethnic and linguistic group of people with an epithet of where some of their ancestors might, two thousand years ago, have cozied up during a sandstorm.

Before investigating any further, I fired off an “irate” letter to the Toronto Star editors, full of crosswordy words (I wanted to speak their language, after all) like “egregious” and “pejorative.”

No response. (Perhaps it was a bit much to expect an editor to jump and run for the hills when in the crosshairs of an irked crossword puzzler.)

Google provided little help in the matter: the top search result for “tent dweller” is an application for “Tent-Dweller Declaration” on the island of Guernsey. (Obviously an interesting way to get sidetracked on the information superhighway, maybe even plan a holiday… just as many of you are doing right now if you clicked on the above links.)

I put calls out to well-placed friends and scholars in the Middle East and at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University who, as expected, debated the etymological nuances of the word “Arab” the way the rest of us might argue the merits of ice-cream flavours the first time the weather turns warm after a long, ice-creamless winter. (I’d argue for “vanillas” (58-Across in the offending crossword puzzle)).

I consulted more books, some of them even holy: Albert Hourani’s epic tome History of the Arab Peoples, the great classical Arabic literature reader Night and Horses in the Desert, the Qur’an, the Bible (in Genesis 25, Jacob was apparently tent dweller; although there’s no mention of where dwelled his uncle Ishmael).

Yes, I even looked at a few questionably reputable websites (once I got past my new obsession with Guernsey). See, for example, an oft-plagiarized-on-the-Internet passage on the website of the Arabian Horse Association

(Scroll to the penultimate paragraph, where there is a cursory explanation of how “Arab” in early Semitic tongues may have referred to a “desert dweller”; the reader is left to conclude what else, but a tent, could possibly sustain the more specific dwelling needs of the desert dweller.)

But most illuminatingly, I sought out actual real-life Torontonian Arabs: the Iraqi taxi driver on the night of the first snowfall in November, the Lebanese clerk at the gas station on King Street, three different falafel vendors, the student shabab on the Spadina streetcar, etc.

Conducting an informal poll, I found the following informal results: Not only did zero percent of those polled live in a tent, but zero-point-zero percent of respondents had ever been camping in Algonquin Park, where they would almost certainly be exposed to tents.

(Come to think of it, as an avid camper and seasonal tent dweller myself, I'm a little irked that the solution to the clue "tent dweller" wasn't me!)

All were familiar with the existence of the Toronto Star, though none confessed to being consumers of its crossword puzzles. (One noted his liking for Arabic crossword puzzles. For a non-Guernsey-related diversion, you can check out this site for Arabic crosswords).

But most importantly, everyone polled, from the Middle East to Harvard to Toronto, agreed that “tent dweller” can only be, in the twenty-first century, in Canada, egregiously pejorative.

So, to the Toronto Star crossword guru (whoever you were on October 5, 2007), take notice. We are “irate” (63-Across). Your crossword gaffe “stabs” (35-Across) deep into the heart of decency, “scars” (24-Down) the flesh of our cherished Canadian enlightenment, and “reunites” (39-Down) against you the combined strengths of crossword puzzlers and political correctness (I’m not sure when we were united the first time, but we’re reunited now).

You should feel no bigger, no worthier, and no more harmonious than a cheap plastic “kazoo” (56-Down).

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