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Sep 27, 2010
This week's theme
Words related to censorship

This week's words
custos morum

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with Anu Garg

In Saudi Arabia a woman in public has to be covered head to toe or risk arrest (see 1, 2). In India it's socially acceptable if a woman's torso and legs are clad. In the US it's tolerable as long as her top and bottom are not exposed. And in Europe anything (or nothing) is fair game.

Which one of these configurations is correct? Who decides? Well, here is an idea: Why not let a woman decide for herself? The same goes for books. Instead of banning certain books, why not let a reader decide what books he wants to read, and what books to buy or borrow?

Unfortunately even in these modern times there are Comstocks and Bowdlers around us. To highlight the issue, librarians, booksellers, and readers celebrate the freedom to read by observing Banned Books Week during the last week of September every year (Sep 25 - Oct 2 this year).

In A.Word.A.Day this week we'll feature five words related to censorship.



1. A ruling on a point of law given by an Islamic religious leader.
2. A severe denunciation.

From Arabic fatwa (legal opinion, decree), from afta (to decide a legal point). Ultimately from the Semitic root ptw (to advise) that also brought us the word mufti.

Although the word has been recorded in the English language since 1625, the incident that brought it into worldwide consciousness took place in 1989. The most infamous of all fatwas took place on February 14 that year when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran pronounced a death sentence on the novelist Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses.

Khomeini could simply have written a book of his own countering Rushdie's. Why not fight ink with ink instead of with blood?

In Islam a fatwa could be a ruling on any point (such as the fatwa against ads for dog chow, see below), and most fatwas are about day-to-day life. But given the ease with which fatwas seem to call for murder, the word is now synonymous with extreme condemnation of someone, up to death. The latest fatwa victim is a Seattle cartoonist.

"Ads promoting pet foods and shops selling pet accessories, especially for cats and dogs, have been banned by the fatwa. Based on shariah, a dog is essentially unclean."
Fatwa Bans Pet Ads; Tehran Times (Iran); Aug 25, 2010.

"By not having read carefully my extremely carefully thought-through text, many scooter riders contacted me most angrily because they thought I'd inferred [read: implied] that all scooter riders are fascists... I have nothing against scooters -- I had quite a romance with an old Lambretta myself once -- so please withdraw your fatwa."
Barefoot Doctor; Global Warning; The Observer (London, UK); Jul 14, 2002.

See more usage examples of fatwa in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted. -Jules Renard, author (1864-1910)

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