Etymology du Jour: Baltajeh

After getting into endless brawls, online and offline, with acquaintances and strangers alike over antagonistic political stances, on the backdrop of a perennially tumultuous Lebanese political landscape, I deemed it much safer to start tackling sociopolitical events from a different, more innocuous bias. Such as etymology.

An “etymologizing” take on the “Topic du jour”, if you may, where I can channel my frustration with politics through my sheer love for word.

So today I will tackle a rather controversial word, that I have been mulling over for the last couple of months: Baltajeh. A pejorative term whose misplaced use has sparked protests with angry rioters running  amok for days.

But what does a Baltajeh mean exactly?

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Definition of Baltaji in modern Arabic dictionaries.

As its initial morphology suggests, Baltaji is of certain Ottoman origins. Baltajeh or Baltaji is indeed the localized levantine form of Turkish Baltaci (pronounced Baltadji, and composed of Balta = Axe + Ci=Bearer). The Baltacilar i.e. “axemen” were indeed halberdiers, member of a corps of the Ottoman Sultan palace guards. They started off as military trailblazers, and became in charge of supplying firewood to the Imperial Harem (hence the axe connection). Around the 19th century, Baltaci meant a subaltern of the Serail, in the league of porters, gardeners, cooks, butchers and coffee servers.

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An Ottoman Baltaci

Surely Baltajis were low-ranking, and though they used axes, there was nothing criminal about their activity, as the modern usage of the term implies. I guess the utmost proof of the benignity of the Baltaji, is the fact that it’s not uncommon to have people bearing such surname in Turkey and the Arab-speaking former Ottoman provinces.

With the outbreak of the “Arab spring” in Egypt, the word came into the spotlight in connection with hordes of violent government-backed thugs mandated to counter the popular protests, and dubbed “Baltajiyat an-Nizam” (The regime goons). This of course compounded the pejorative sense of the term.

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Modern day Baltagi

However, try to ask any Lebanese person about the exact definition of a Baltajeh and they’d sure tell you about its derogatory connotations, without pinpointing a clear meaning for it.

In conclusion, we do not know exactly how did docile Baltaci morph with time into unruly notorious Baltajeh. But we do know that, until the dust settles, the term is to be used sparingly, and with the greatest degree of caution, lest you want a weapon-clad scooter-riding crowd coming after you.

 

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