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It’s not a caravan

Words like “caravan” have overtones and undertones. They allude to things that awaken hope or fear.

photo of central american migrants wading river
Caravans in the American mind are foreign to the Western Hemisphere or western culture.
REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Does anything seem strange about “caravan” as the word to describe the migrants now moving on foot toward the United States’ southern border? “Caravan” is the word used everywhere without a second thought.


Rev. Gordon C. Stewart

The etymology of the word “caravan” is Persian. Wiktionary gives this description: “From Middle French caravane, from Old French carvane, from Persian کاروان (kârvân), from Middle Persian kʾlwʾn’ (kārawān), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ker- (army) (whence Old English here). The word was used to designate a group of people who were travelling by camel or horse on the Silk Road.”

Language matters. Words matter. “Language: A Mechanism of Social Control” — Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC tutorial for political candidates — knows this better than most. Words like “caravan” have overtones and undertones. They allude to things that awaken hope or fear. There’s nothing like the warning of a caravan to awaken associations with Middle Easterners coming to our Southern border.

Have you ever heard of a Christian caravan? Or a Jewish caravan? Caravans in the American mind are foreign to the Western Hemisphere or western culture. Caravans belong to Persians (Iran) and the Arabs. No one fears a camel caravan! But we do remember the Crusades. We remember the waging of religious war between Christians and Muslims. We fear al-Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS).

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The linguistic manipulators of language use such emotive allusions as weapons in election campaigns and underscore the words by sending U.S. Army troops to the border — to keep us safe — to beat back the barbarian Middle Eastern terrorists from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador now walking slowly several hundred miles from the border in hopes of a better life. They know fear works. They know that threats to our freedom and national security will take our imaginations back in time to Arabian desert nomads whose camels carried them — fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents — from here to there without settling anywhere. They know we will think of a caravan as an army, not a caravan of nomads.

Language matters. Words matter. Don’t let the dispatch of troops to the Mexican border and the language of social control make fools of those of us who have never met a camel or walked on bandaged feet with bloodied hands pushing broken baby strollers in hopes for a better life beyond the border. They’re Central and South Americans. It’s not a caravan!

Gordon C. Stewart, the retired pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, is a social commentator, writer and radio commentator. He is the author of “Be Still: Departure from Collective Madness.”


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