Women Who Cough and Men Who Hunt: Taboo and Euphemism (kinaya) in the Medieval Islamic World.

Author:Naanian Erez

This article examines how Arabic handled societal taboos in the medieval Islamic world and the ways by which language users applied censorship that led to the creation of euphemisms. Special attention is given to sources from the eastern part of the Islamic world dating to the fourth/tenth and the fifth/eleventh centuries, and to the taboo topics and types of euphemisms they disclose. The complex relationship between the concept of euphemism and kinaya, the polysemous Arabic term that renders it, is examined. As a whole, the evidence demonstrates an overwhelming Arabic preference for figurative speech over change of form as the essential generation mechanism of euphemisms. Finally, light is shed on the ways in which discerning medieval literary critics anticipated significant modern sociolinguistic observations: the relations between euphemism, orthophemism, and dysphemism, in addition to the incessant process of euphemism degradation.


    A universal human phenomenon, taboos are well attested in past and present societies. A taboo is defined by the linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge as "a proscription of behaviour for a specifiable community of one or more persons, at a specifiable time, in specifiable contexts." Despite their ubiquity, "there is no such thing as an absolute taboo that holds for all worlds, times and contexts." (1) People censor their language in order to avoid taboo words, which are believed to be either harmful or uncomfortable to the speaker or hearers. Tabooed words are commonly related to sex, bodily functions and effluvia, sickness, death, food, and the sacred. Such words are often expressed in language indirectly by means of a euphemism, "sweet talking," (2) an elaborate and inclusive definition of which is "an alternative to a dispre-ferred expression, in order to avoid possible loss of face: either one's own face or, through giving offense, that of the audience, or of some third party." (3)

    My main goal in this article is to show how Arabic reflected societal taboos in the medieval Islamic world, and the ways by which Arabic speakers applied censorship that led to the creation of euphemisms. The Arabic term for euphemism used in the medieval sources is kinaya (4) However, it should be stated at the outset that euphemism-kinaya is not a one-to-one relationship; before treating its euphemistic sense, the polysemy of kinaya will be discussed in the next section.

    Most of the substantial primary sources I examined are dated to the fourth/tenth and fifth/eleventh centuries. Among these, the compilation of euphemisms made by the celebrated anthologist and literary critic Aba Mansur (d. 429/1039), (5) Kitab al-Kinaya wa-l-ta'rid (The Book of Euphemism and Allusion), occupies a special place. Al-Tha'alibi's work, the first of its kind according to its author, was first composed in Nishapfir in the year 400/1009. Later he produced a second edition and dedicated it to his then patron, the Khwarazmshah Abu l-'Abbas Ma'mun b. Ma'mun in Gurganj. (6) This must have happened no later than 407/1017, when the Khwarazmshah was assassinated. (7) The great value of this book lies in its thematically organized treatment of euphemisms, the opulent body of varied examples adduced by the anthologist, and--to some degree--his attention to the social context. These merits are only marginally affected by the fact that al-Tha'alibi, who was not a systematic literary critic, did not address kinaya (in his use, almost exclusively "euphemism") from a rhetorical point of view; nor by the fact that he neglected to discuss how it differed from ta'rid ('allusion'). Literary critics and rhetoricians who lived after al-Tha'alibi applied more systematic thought to kinaya. Their efforts led to more sophisticated and elaborate definitions of the term from a rhetorical vantage point. (8) Nonetheless, the concentrated efforts by scholastic rhetoricians--al-Sakkaki (d. 626/1229) and his followers--to define kinaya systematically, based on the pioneering work of (Abd al-Jurjani, resulted in an abstract discussion disengaged from its social functions and cultural heritage. (9) As "euphemism" kinaya has to date been addressed insufficiently--if at all--by modern scholarship. (10)

    The present inquiry seeks to study it from the rhetorical. linguistic, and social aspects in the medieval Islamic world.


    The lexicographical definition of kinaya by Ibn Manzur (d. 711/1311) reads:

    Kinaya is saying one thing and meaning another. "He spoke indirectly of the matter with [an expression] other than it, he speaks indirectly, indirect speech" means he says other than it from which it is inferred, like [in words denoting] sexual intercourse, feces, etc. (11) Kinaya is glossed here as "periphrasis" and associated with taboo terms, which in practice means "euphemism." This is indeed the predominant, general, non-technical sense of the word, but it says little of how a kinaya, an expression standing in for another, succeeds at evoking the intended meaning in the recipient's mind.

    The highly influential and original literary theorist 'Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (d. 471/1078 or 474/1081) (12) appears to have been the first to present a thoughtful explanation of this process from a rhetorical vantage point. His contribution is important enough for our discussion of kinaya to warrant a close examination in some detail. 'Abd al-Jurjani discusses kinaya alongside majaz ("tropical speech") as both share a common trait, namely, being types of expressions whose intended meaning differs from their explicit meaning. Kinaya, says 'Abd al-Qahir, is the indication of a certain meaning not with a word conventionally applied to it in the language (al-lafz; al-mawdu' lahu fi l-lugha), but with the corollary of the meaning in the existent world (talihi wa-ridfuhu fi-l-wujud). The examples for kinaya adduced by him (also elsewhere) are "long of baldric" (tawil al-nijad) for a tall man; "rich in ashes of the cooking-pot" (kathir ramad al-qidr) for a very hospitable man; and "late morning sleeper" (na'um al-duha) for a woman leading a life of ease and plenty. In each of these cases, the kinaya is the corollary of the intended meaning in the real world: a tall man wears a long baldric for his sword, a very hospitable man welcoming many guests produces plenty of ashes cooking for them, and a woman leading a life of comfort and ease has servants attending to her needs and consequently can sleep until late morning. (13) Another typical example is the line by the poet Ziyad al-A'jam (d. ca. 100/718) [kamil]:

    Inna I-samahata wa-l-muru'ata wa-l-nada fi qubbatin duribat 'ala bni l-Hashraji Generosity, virtue, and liberality are indeed in a round tent pitched over Ibn al-Hashraj (Abd al-Qahir comments that the poet located the qualities of the praised patron in the tent pitched over him instead of in his personality. This is an instance of kinilya built on the physical proximity of the patron to the tent (shay'in yashtamilu 'alayhi wa-yatalabbasu bihi). (14)

    He approves of the widely held principle that kinaya is more eloquent than explicit speech (al-kinaya ablaghu min al-ifsah), just as "tropical speech (majaz) is always more eloquent than proper speech (haqiqa)." Tropical speech is more powerful and its greater effect on the human soul is a natural and normal reaction. IS The reason for that, explains (Abd al-Qahir, is that kinaya (and similarly the various types of majaz) furnishes competent evidence for the argument made, which does not exist in the explicit expression:

    When you apply a kinaya to "great hospitality" saying "richness in ashes of the cooking-pot," you have predicated great hospitality by the predication (ithbat) of its evidence and proof, and through the sign of its existence. That is by all means more eloquent than predicating it by itself [saying "he is very hospitable," EN], because its method then is the method of a claim accompanied by evidence. 16 'Abd al-Qahir differentiates between two kinds of speech: (1) the speaker's intention is grasped through the meaning of the expression (lafz) solely, e.g., kharaja Zayd for Zayd's departing properly ('ala l-haqiqa); and (2) the intention is grasped through the meaning of the expression (lafz) and then through a secondary meaning. The latter characterizes kinaya (like isti'ara 'metaphor' and tamthil 'analogy'), as when huwa kathiru ramadi l-qidr is first understood from its primary meaning "he is rich in ashes of the cooking-pot," and through it the secondary, intended meaning "he is very hospitable." The two different understanding processes in (1) and (2) are called by (Abd al-Qahir al-ma'na and ma'na al-ma'na, respectively. (17)

    It is striking that in Dala'il al-i'jaz 'Abd al-Qahir always treats kinaya in conjunction with majaz, and demonstrates how both work in comparable ways, without however subsuming the former under the general category of the latter, as he does in the case of isti'ara. (18) In a nutshell, 'Abd al-Qahir views majaz as an extended meaning of a given expression. This extended or, more aptly, tropical meaning must maintain a certain relationship of similarity or contiguity with the proper meaning of the expression. 19 One would expect this definition (with a relationship of contiguity) to apply to kintiya inasmuch as it applies to isti'ara and tamthil (with a relationship of similarity), the two tropes he plainly subsumed under majaz. Moreover, kinaya, istiara, and tamthil are bundled together as three types in which meaning is derived through reasoning (mdqul) and not understood literally from the expression (lafz). (20) In other words, meaning is inferred through the process he calls mana al-mana (as outlined above) in each one of them. As a result, it is not completely clear whether (Abd al-Qahir considered kinaya a trope (majaz), and if not, what the grounds for its exclusion were from this general...

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