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April 24, 2020  |  Friday words #217  |  6746 hit(s)

I have another term this week that could be interpreted to be related to current events, you decide. The word is sadopopulism. I'll note that people of any political persuasion will probably argue that the other side engages in sadopopulism, so it's one of those terms that's handy across the political spectrum.

Sadopopulism refers to a style of governance that actively hurts the governed. Obviously, it includes the word populism, which is normally thought of as appealing to the common person (whether sincerely or for cynical political gain). But it adds the prefix sado-, which is the "combining form" of sadism, which here is used in a general sense of exhibiting cruelty.

Why would someone engage in sadopopulism? According the historian Timothy Snyder, who invented the word, "the logic of sadopopulism is that pain is a resource." You get into power by promising people things, as in traditional populism. But once you're in power, you deliberately make people suffer. Then you tell a story about how their pain is the fault of "others," however it's useful for you to define then. Did you lose your job? Those outsiders took it. Does your healthcare suck? It's because outsiders are ruining it. Are people running around doing things that you're uncomfortable with? It's those outsiders trying to destroy our traditional values. And so on.

As Snyder says:

The way politics works in that model is that government doesn't solve your problems, it blames your problems on other people. […] Not so long ago, the currency of government was achievement. Government had to do something. Now, the currency of government is discourse. Government has to make you feel worse about people around you.

In the meantime, the government of those in power is blameless. In fact, it can continue to amass power—people will willingly cede power to is—as long as people believe that it wields that power to punish the bad people who are ruining everything. Anyway, that's the theory. Snyder uses the term to frame how he sees the current US government working, but I believe I've seen evidence that it's just as much a talking point for the right when the left is in power.

For word origins this week I've got the word mafia (or Mafia, capped). We were watching an Icelandic detective show, and from among the few words we could pick out, there was "mafia." I thought dang, a word that's been adopted into Icelandic, that's a pretty successful word.

We know for sure that the word mafia comes from Sicily. This is an island near the Italian mainland[1] where they of course speak Italian (an Italian dialect, anyway). But the island was occupied for a couple of centuries by the Arabs, so there is some mixed linguistic heritage there.

There is a set of related words: not just mafia, but also mafioso (-osa for the feminine, -i for the plural). The theory is that the original was mafiusu, and Mafia is a "re-formation" or backformation from that word.

This is where things get hazy. The OED suggests somewhat conservatively that mafiusu might be a blend of words that meant "scoundrel" and "cheat." Douglas Harper suggests that the mafiusu has connotations of "bully, arrogant, but also fearless, enterprising, and proud." There's a theme here of "spirit of hostility to the law." The modern sense of Mafia as a criminal enterprise might come from the title of a 19th-century play I mafiusi di la Vicaria ("The Mafiosi of the Vicaria") about a gang of prisoners. All of this insight comes from Diego Gambetta, an ethnologist who studied the Mafia.

This still doesn't entirely resolve where the word ultimately comes from. People propose an Arabic source, but there are different ideas about which word in Arabic exactly mafiusu came from. The Wikipedia article on Mafia lists seven (!) Arabic words as possible sources, including words meaning "exempted," "cave," "excessive boasting," "rejected," "protection," and a couple of others.

You can see how a concept like "[the] rejected" might be taken up proudly by an outgroup to describe themselves (a process known as reappropriation). And boy, surely among the most out of out groups is the mafia. Even in Icelandic.

[1] Sicilia īnsula magna est, as my Latin textbook informs me.

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