Iconoclasm – etymology: Ancient Greek, eikono-klazo (statue-smash).

I’ve been listening to, and reading, reports on our recent spate of statue-phobia ngesiZulu recently – it’s been difficult not to do so, what with catchy hashtags and clashing rhetoric and escalating levels of mutual disrespect becoming the order of things.

Iconoclasm is tricky business, you see. Whose icons do you smash? Who has the authority to smash them? Whose do you choose to fill the gap, once the cheering and brick-dust and spraypaint have settled?

While all these thoughts have been clattering around my head, another thing began to nag at me. As usual, it’s in my safe-zone – linguistic analysis. This time, it’s to do with a particular word-choice – what is the word for ‘a statue’ ngesiZulu?

SABC, through their mouthpiece of uKhozi FM, chose isichuse. Isolezwe, a member of the Independent Newspapers group, chose umfuziselo. They could also have chosen isithombe or isifanekiso, but they didn’t.

Let’s look at the two they didn’t choose, first:

isithombe

1. an image or statue

2. a doll

3. an idol

4. a picture or a photograph

5. a dwarf

…and…

isifanekiso

1. a sample, example, specimen

2. a statue, image, piece of sculpture

The first word is the one used most often ngesiZulu when one is referring to a picture. As a photographer, you thwebula isithombe (lit. whip/mesmerize/enchant a photograph) with your strange machine. An artist can also dweba isithombe (paint a picture). However the key to why this word wasn’t used is in the fact that this word is also used to represent a doll, an idol and a dwarf. The implication is that the likeness being created is not life-size, in contrast with the gigantic statues of colonial leaders on display in our cities.

The second word, however, is completely neutral. Ukufanekisa means cause-something-to-have-a-resemblance-to-something-else, so isifanekiso is the crafted/moulded/created likeness of something or someone. It is also used when talking about imagery in poetry. So why wasn’t it used?

Before I attempt an answer to that question, I want to show you the choice that Isolezwe made. Umfuziselo is a newer word than isifanekiso, and doesn’t occur in the 1958 Vilakazi and Doke Dictionary. Its meaning is transparent, however – ukufuza means “resemble or follow in terms of characteristics, looks, behaviour, manner, voice, gait etc.” and is included in the proverb “ukhamba lufuza imbiza” (the small pot resembles the big one, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). Ukufuzisela therefore means cause-something-to-have-a-likeness-to-something-else – pretty much exactly as ukufanekisa does. The difference is only in the choice of noun-class – umfuziselo would mean a thing made of one medium or one substance having that resemblance to something or someone else. No mixed media here.

While that word has a strange link to genetic resemblance passed from parents to their children, it’s still a fairly neutral word. Whereas isichuse most certainly isn’t.

isichuse

1. a dummy, a scarecrow, anything set up to aim at

2. a butt, a nonentity, a person to whom no consideration is given

When I first heard this word being used to denote the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a couple of weeks ago, I though that I’d misheard. I even went to look up other possible spellings – isicuse doesn’t exist, and isachuse means the same thing. I scratched my head, and wondered what to make of the radio using such an openly derogatory term.

As uKhozi FM is one of the mouthpieces of the ANC government, having heard all the platitudinous rhetoric being spouted about the need for transformation and discussion rather than the defacing of monuments, I didn’t expect such a clear stance to be portrayed by the use of this word. It turns out I was wrong.

I suppose if you’re going to be iconoclastic, you may as well belittle and denigrate the icon as much as possible. After all, removing a scarecrow or a dummy at which you aim your weapons is a lot easier than removing the likeness of an actual person. Ironically, though, this particular isichuse was given a lot of consideration before finally becoming the butt of jokes (please, no jokes about faecal matter here).