John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
(CNN)Republicans who despise Democrats such as Hillary Clinton for describing America as in a battle against “terrorism” rather than “radical Islam” need to get out of the sandbox. Their charge is, at heart, childish.
The gripe is that Clinton, President Barack Obama and others, in refusing to say we are battling radical Islam, are too caught up in political correctness to even call our enemies by name. The further implication is that our leaders’ reluctance to directly call out our enemies stems from not truly considering them culpable — i.e., believing that the West had it coming.
No. The complainants think that as long as we say “radical Islam” rather than “Islam” alone, we are suitably specifying that we don’t hate Muslims. But that isn’t how it would appear to Muslims themselves, and for understandable reasons.
In a sentence such as “We must eradicate radical Islam,” the object of eradicate is technically “radical Islam,” yes, but the core object, the heart of the expression “radical Islam” is “Islam.” Radical Islam is a kind of Islam. The object of the eradication in the sentence is “Islam,” modified by “radical.”
That affects how one processes such a sentence — the adjective can come off as a kind of decoration. “I’m thinking about one of those juicy steaks” — note how we process the person mainly as thinking about steak, not steaks with the particular quality of being juicy. The “juicy” feels parenthetical.
FULL ARTICLE FROM CNN