“It is absolutely not true, I did not call him a terrorist. Iâ€™m ignorant. I donâ€™t even know what the word means.”
Which, on face value, is a fairly astonishing example of Geoffrey Pullum’s bugaboo du jour, linguification: the rhetorical practice of taking a non-linguistic claim, then turning it into a completely different (and often false) claim about language, presumably on the grounds that it intensifies the first claim, or sounds fancier, or is funnier.
There’s several things that strike me as bizarre about this. Firstly, the claim that he doesn’t know what the word terrorist means. Now, this could be a subtle political jibe at the difficulties Western governments have defining terrorism in a way that includes all the things that their enemies do, but excludes all the things Western governments would like to keep on doing. If so, congratulations are due. But, reluctantly, I admit that it probably isn’t. Instead, it just seems really weird. The whole “I don’t even know what X means” snowclone (along with its “can’t even spell” and “can’t even pronounce” variants) seems best applied to words that at are at least slightly obscure or technical – not something in such common usage as “terrorist”.
(By the way, am I the only one who thinks that the “I don’t even know what X means” is very different in its common usage to the “I don’t know the meaning of X” snowclone? It strikes me that the first is usually a protestation of innocence based on ignorance, while the second normally refers to abstract concepts that the speaker is claiming don’t form part of their character. But no doubt some quick Googling would provide myriad counterexamples…)
But what’s really odd about this is that I can’t work out what the underlying claim he’s trying to make is. Obviously, he’s claiming he didn’t call Zidane a terrorist. But what’s the supporting claim, the elaboration that he could have used instead of professing not to know the meaning of the word? “I never use that word”? “I don’t use that word lightly”? “I don’t understand the concept of terrorism well enough to use it as an insult”? None seems to make much sense. It’s genuinely baffling. But perhaps help is at hand…
It turns out that there are several different versions of Materazzi’s comments being reported by various news organisations. Other versions include:
“I am ignorant, I don’t even know what an Islamic terrorist is; my only terrorist is her,” he said pointing to his 10-month-old daughter.
“I did not call him a terrorist. I am not a cultured person and I don’t even know what an Islamist terrorist is.” He added: “For me the mother is sacred, you know that.”
Obviously, in the twin processes of translation from Italian and the usual journalistic pick-and-choose polishing that quotes get given, the result has got slightly mangled. Sadly, I don’t even know how to pronounce “Italian”, so I can’t track down the original langauge version to find out which version most closely matches the original.
Regardless, the non-linguified claims are equally odd – both in terms of their plausibility, and as to what on earth Materazzi was trying to convey by denying knowledge of Islamic terrorism. The closest I can come is “I’m not very up with world affairs, and so I would never have connected the fact that Zidane is of Algerian Muslim origin with the notion of global terrorism until somebody explained it to me after this whole media shitstorm kicked off.” Or something.
But even then, the original linguification remains a puzzle – even if it wasn’t Materazzi, somebody (be it a translator or a journalist) thought that “I don’t even know the meaning of the word” was a perfectly reasonable thing for him to say. When it really, really wasn’t.