Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 26 October 2002

A Lexicographer writes

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Mr Roger Broad, a reader who lives in an area of London I would call Westbourne Park, though he might disagree, writes to tell me that a friend of his, born in Istanbul of varied extraction, does not mind being called a Levantine. Mr Broad thought that it might have derogatory connotations, although he admits this might be merely attributable to an overdose of Bulldog Drummond.

I can't find that the dictionaries have detected such a negative sense. The Levant is what the Crusaders called Outremer. (Or, in Spain, it is the east coast of the Iberian peninsula, the Valencian territories. But then, in Spain, a slightly old-fashioned word for groceries is ultramarinos, brought, as it were, from Outremer to the domestic Levant.)

Mr Broad also touches on a clear semantic change when he asks in passing whatever happened to the Near East. What is generally referred to as the Middle East - the Levant, indeed - was once known as the Near East.

I was just about to make a slight joke about Norfolk or the Isle of Dogs perhaps being all that is left of the Near East, when I noticed that the earliest citation for Near East in the Oxford English Dictionary makes exactly the same sort of joke. The issue of the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine for July 1869 had a heading 'Peeps at the Near East', but the article beneath revealed that it was Spitalfields, in east London, that was the subject. Sometimes the Near East comprehended the Balkans, which are in truth not very far east. It was their Turkish culture and political control that made them seem eastern.

Unless there are lots of examples that are earlier than the OED knows, the designation Near East belonged to the height of Empire, the Kipling years. As for Middle East, its misuse has been noted for some decades. In 1958, Lord Vansittart complained that in 1909 'we had none of the sloppy modernism that lumps everything from the Mediterranean to Bengal as the Middle East ...Persia, Baluchistan, Afghanistan, India were the Middle East'.

But by 1974 the Encyclopaedia Britannica was including in the Middle East anything from Morocco to the Arabian peninsula. If Morocco is the Middle East, then Arab culture must have been working its magic carpet effect, for Morocco lies wholly west of the Greenwich meridian. It is not so much the Middle East, more the Near West - or, if not quite so near as Eastbourne, not so easterly either; indeed more occidental than Westbourne Park itself.