Monday, November 16, 2015

East is East, Unless It’s Levant

No one seems able to decide whether to refer to the notorious Islamic terrorist group as ISIS or ISIL. The former stands for “Islamic State in Syria,” which seems to be the prevalent term, and the latter, less frequently used, means the “Islamic State in the Levant.” Levant?  What exactly does that mean?

It’s an imprecise term for the geographical area on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, which would include the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine—a good portion of what is now usually known as the Middle East. The word Levantine has been used to refer to someone of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin.

Levant entered English from French, derived from the Italian levante, meaning “rising” and refers to the rising of the sun in the east. Levant has been in use since the 15th century, its earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary being in the 1497 Naval accounts and inventories of the reign of Henry VII, which refers to a “viage [voyage] to be made to the levaunt.”
The word inevitably calls to mind the eccentric American composer, pianist, actor, and wit named Oscar Levant. He was seen in numerous American movies, usually playing a cynical, wisecracking piano player, and later became a ubiquitous guest on Jack Paar’s Tonight show. He became addicted to prescription drugs and spent considerable time in mental institutions after episodes of erratic behavior. Among his mordant witticisms are:
            “There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”
            “I'm controversial. My friends either dislike me or hate me.”
            “The pun is the lowest form of humor unless you think of it first.”
            “The last movie I made at Warner Brothers was with Doris Day. That was before she was a virgin.”
            “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”
            “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.”
            “Roses are red, violets blue, I’m schizophrenic, and so am I.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks of himself as an Oscar Levant manqué.  He lacks only the wit, the talent, and the fame of the original.

            A young lady from the Levant,
            Longed to frolic with General Grant.
                        But she found that Ulysses
                        Was the biggest of sissies,
            For Grant just said, “No ma’am—I can’t.”

            So she turned to Immanuel Kant,
            Whom she thought she could surely enchant.
                        But she was too thick
                        To grasp the Ding an sich
            And Kant declared curtly, “I shan’t.”

            At last she corralled Buffalo Bill,
            And hoped he would give her a thrill.
                        She’d heard in the Wild West
                        Men had plenty of zest—
            And Bill said, “I can, and I shall, and I will!” 

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