SHALOM: What do you do when a good word becomes bad?

Problem of languages

Some years ago, the biggest oil company in the world changed its name to Exxon.  I don’t remember what the old name was.  It could have been “Standard Oil.”  I also remember hearing that the cost of the re-branding exercise resulting in the new name cost millions of dollars.  The concern was that the new name must not be embarrassing or offensive in any language.  This is a big challenge in the global village where there are hundreds of languages, in which some words have same sound by coincident but can mean totally different thing, sometimes very embarrassing or offensive.

When I was introducing my fiance to my mother, I remember asking her never to utter names of two Canadian organizations: CUSO and MANCO.  The latter is, for people who have never been to Manitoba, an ubiquitous milk brand from the Manitoba Coop.  In Japanese, those words sound like the very rude words for excrement and female genital.  I added another word soon, when we moved to Europe: the name of a popular Italian car, “Cinco Cento” Fiat 500.  The word for number five in Italian sounds like a rude word for male genital in Japanese.  I didn’t want my mother to think my wife got mixed up with shady Japanese characters.

It could be dangerous if you are not aware of such problems of similar sounding words with different meaning.  When I was working with a program for Palestinian refugees I went to Gaza every year.  In one of those working trips to Gaza, though I was travelling in a clearly marked car showing that it belonged to a refugee agency, several teenage boys began to shout “Shalom” to me.  I innocently answered back, “Shalom.”  My Palestinian colleague turned pale, and pulled me off the road into the safety of a house of his friend.  The kids obviously thought for some reason I was an Israeli spy.  I knew that there were many Shin Bet informers (Israeli equivalent of MI5) among Palestinians, but Japanese Shin Bet mole?

I was in love with the words “Shalom” since 1960’s from my reading of the books by progressive Christian thinkers like Harvey Cox.  He explained the word in a most touching manner as a Jewish aspiration for peace with justice.  It has become a fashion among progressive Christians to greet “Shalom.”  However, since I was hired by the Canadian Council of Churches, I have had opportunities to go to the Holy Land, both Israel and Palestine, regularly.  It was impossible not to notice that in Israel the word “shalom” was ubiquitous as greeting as “Hello” in our culture.

This also meant that the word was a symbol of oppression.  Palestinians hear the word every time they are stopped at the check points: Israeli soldiers greeting each other “shalom”.  It is a pity that such a good word has become bad because of political situations and cultural differences.


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