Marc Tracy has a very sad piece in the Tablet apologizing for having used the word brouhaha “freely and frequently.” What’s wrong with it, you ask? I’ll let him tell it:
I received a lovely email recently from one Bonny Fetterman. “I wonder if you are aware of the etymology of the word ‘brouhaha’ because if you were, you probably wouldn’t have used it in this title,” she wrote (I had typed it in reference to, of all things, the ADL). She continued, citing her high school teacher: “It was an anti-Semitic term in France, based on the words of Hebrew prayer, ‘Baruch atah … ’ which sounded like a confused mess to Frenchmen passing synagogues and came to signify a loud, confused mess.” Wait, really?
His initial response was a healthy one; unfortunately, his cursory online research having turned up the information that the word was from French, “said by Gamillscheg to have been, in medieval theater, ‘the cry of the devil disguised as clergy.’ Perhaps from Heb. barukh habba‘ ‘blessed be the one who comes,’” he decided that because Ms. Fetterman wrote “I bristle every time I hear the term,” “out of respect to her and other linguists among our readers, we will try to refrain from using it.”
In the first place, Ms. Fetterman is not a linguist, she’s just someone who heard a vague story from her high school teacher (!) and has been carrying a grudge ever since against a perfectly good word. Of course, people carry grudges against perfectly good words all the time, and that’s their prerogative, but there’s no reason anyone else need take account of it. Furthermore, the offending etymology is dubious in the extreme; note that the two versions given above conflict as to which Hebrew phrase is supposedly being imitated, and the American Heritage Dictionary just says “French, of imitative origin.” I deplore this drive to seek out inoffensive words, dig up alleged dirt about their origins, and then go around trying to get other people to stop using them. Does anyone think there is the slightest tinge of antisemitism in the use of the word brouhaha in English? No? Then for heaven’s sake find something more productive to focus your energy on. (Thanks for the link, Derryl!)