Stickybeak’s Lexicon. Syncretism

Stickybeak’s Lexicon

An irregular rummage through the world of words. (Or, should I know what that means?)


At the risk of going all highbrow on you, the next word I am adding to the lexicon comes to you courtesy of the late Susan Sontag. I think she has been lurking in the peripherals of my conscience all week since having mentioned her essay “Illness as Metaphor”. I thought I had a copy lurking somewhere and went to dig it out earlier today. Alas, I do not. However, I do own a copy of a collection of essays and speeches which was published after her death, ‘At the Same Time’ (Farrar Straus Giroux, New York 2007). Towards the end of the collection is a speech she gave entitled ‘Literature is Freedom’. I urge you to find a copy; if you are interested in literature, words and a world where such things matter, you will appreciate her sentiments.

And so to the next candidate for Stickybeak to consider.

Syncretism (adj syncretic, vt syncretise) : reconciliation of, or attempt to reconcile, different systems of belief; fusion or blending of religions, as by identification of gods, taking over of observances, or selection of whatever seems best in each; illogical compromise in religion.

I felt I had to just give the whole definition from my Chambers as I couldn’t say it any more clearly.

It was immediately obvious to me that the word had something to do with the joining or merging of things: the ‘sync’ part told me as much. However, it is one of those words which contains far more subtle meaning; this is Susan Sontag we are talking about. She, I assume, always chose her words carefully for their nuances and ability to throw as much light on her meaning as possible.

Sontag’s essay deals with the cultural differences between Europe (old) and America (new) and the issues that this throws up. She wrote it during the administration (I nearly wrote ‘reign’ there) of George W Bush and the occupation of Iraq, using as an example the antagonism some Americans felt towards France and Germany in light of their less than enthusiastic backing of the invasion. This is simplifying her point to a dangerous degree, but as this is not a critique of her essay I shall move on swiftly to an illustration of how she uses the word. Quoting directly from the essay itself: ‘But America……cannot do everything alone. The future of our world… syncretistic, impure. …..More and more we leak into each other.’ I think it is this ‘leaking’ Sontag talks about which really helped me to get a grip on this word. The increasingly global world we live in might make syncretists of us all.

Incidentally, in the index of my Roget’s Thesaurus the words ‘mixture’ and ‘combination’ are listed under syncretism, which does help explain the word in easier terms, but doesn’t get to the more complex heart of the original definition.

So there it is: a new word for Stickybeak to absorb and hopefully find a use for. A word whose meaning I could have guessed at, but on closer inspection discover a more intriguing and, well, meaningful meaning.

© flyingscribbler 2011

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