Linguists call it semantic change, whereby a word evolves to represent something other than its original meaning. An obvious example from our current political discourse is "Islamophobia."
It's a noun, and not an especially inventive one, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force."
Sounds straightforward enough, until someone asks the Coalition Avenir Québec, currently leading the polls ahead of next fall's Quebec provincial election, or the Parti Québécois, to use the word and denounce what it stands for.
A group of 70 mostly Muslim associations has petitioned the federal government to designate Jan. 29, the first anniversary of the terror attack on a Quebec City mosque that claimed six innocents and wounded 19 more, a national day of commemoration and action against Islamophobia.
The CAQ won't hear of the latter bit. The party voiced its opposition, saying "[the attack] is the intolerable act of a single individual and not that of an entire society. Quebecers are open and welcoming, they are not Islamophobic."
That's a curious thing to say, because it rebuts a charge no one involved in the memorial effort is levelling.
PQ MNA Agnès Maltais, meanwhile, believes the term Islamophobia is "loaded, disputed even," and that it is preferable to speak of anti-Muslim sentiment or, ideally, religious intolerance in general.
This rhetorical tip-toeing around the "I" word is telling. It recalls the low-grade hysteria provoked last February by an anodyne, non-binding Parliamentary motion that also mentioned Islamophobia, and which was bitterly opposed by a federal Conservative Party in the throes of a leadership contest that featured a large dollop of identity politics – something the CAQ and PQ are well known to traffic in.
The problem with this dickering is that the mosque attack, even if it was carried out by a single deranged person, wasn't aimed at religion in general. It was the wanton slaughter of Canadian Muslims, in a place that defined them as such.
It was inspired by a prejudice against a specific religion – Islam – a prejudice which in Quebec has been inflamed by a history of political gamesmanship targeting the beliefs and practices of non-Christian religious minorities.
This goes back to 2007 and the Bouchard Taylor commission on the reasonable accommodation of religious practices in a secular province, and continues on through the debate over the unregretted Quebec Charter of Values during the 2014 general election and the passage, last fall, of a bill banning face coverings on people giving and receiving government services, bus rides included.
The fact Quebec politicians are unwilling to use the word "Islamophobia" speaks to their refusal to accept that their populist rhetoric and targeted legislative volleys actually hurt Muslims, and, in the case of the face-covering law, may well violate their constitutional rights.
They, and others in Canada, prefer to make the argument, enunciated by Ms. Maltais, that the word has become too loaded. They contend that its current use is designed to conflate legitimate criticism of radical Islamic terrorism, or of cultural practices that violate Canadian law, with outright bigotry, and thereby silence people of good intention.
There is no question that efforts to paint any and all criticism of Islam as "Islamophobia" are unacceptable. But mainstream politicians who fuss about the word are helping, wittingly or not, far-right anti-immigration groups that purposely muddy the distinction between Islam and radical Islamism in order to foment hate.
In Quebec, that means catering to fringe groups, such as La Meute, which are probably delighted by the CAQ and the PQ position. These groups are Islamophobic in every sense of the word, and they are happy not to be called out.
The fact is that Islamophobia – in the only sense of the word that matters – exists in Quebec, as it does in Canada at large. To admit so will never prevent anyone from legitimately criticizing Islamic extremism, or arm the word with the power to silence.
But to cowardly tiptoe around semantics when anti-Muslim hate crimes have mushroomed is a terrible failing. According to Statistics Canada, crimes targeting Muslims in Canada increased 253 per cent between 2012 and 2015 – a statistic that doesn't include the massacre of last year.
Politicians who play this word game are blind to reality, and are helping to make a serious problem even worse.