Izzat is a word for reputation.

Sometimes your reputation precedes you: “Izzat who I think it is?” Sometimes you create your reputation with your presence: “Hey, who izzat?” And sometimes your reputation is subject to question: “Izzat so?”

This isn’t a word I’ve made up. It’s a real word, in circulation in English for a century and a half so far. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means “honour, reputation, credit, prestige”; Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives two definitions, “personal dignity or respect honor” and “power to command admiration prestige.” And William Shakespeare says it is “an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”

Well, OK, that last quote was specifically about reputation, and it was words put in the mouth of the villain Iago from Othello. But Shakespeare liked to put uncomfortable home truths in the mouths of villains and clowns. And every izzat, whether it be “Izzat who I think it is?” (Webster’s first sense) or “Hey, who izzat?” (Webster’s second sense), is – or should be – subject to some “Izzat so?”

After all, we often get reputation by association. Perhaps we know the right people. Perhaps we come from the right place or the right family. Or perhaps we just look or sound the part – tall men tend to get much farther ahead in business and politics than shorter ones; people of any exclusive social set will judge others on the basis of their attire and their choice of vocabulary, grammar, and accent. A person who is near enough can often be pulled in and altered to fit.

Such happens, too, to the reputations and impressions of words. If a word sounds too much like an unpleasant word, it is likely to be avoided or at least altered in pronunciation (some may find this a niggardly harassment, but it undeniably affects usage more broadly than we think); if a word sounds similar to another more common one, there is likely to be some bleeding of sense and form (even though some may find such internecine interaction an outrage).

I won’t say that has happened with izzat. It did start as Arabic ‘izzah, meaning ‘glory’, but it became izzat in Urdu. Still, the crosstalk effect with “is that” is hard to miss (at least for those who like wordplay), even though its pronunciation is actually supposed to be like “is it,” not like a quick “is that.” On further reflection, one may even be tempted to say it means ‘the last word’ and associate it with izzard, a name for the last letter of our alphabet.

Well. I can try to steer it if I want, and if I’m the main press agent for this word for many people who have heard of it at all, I may even have some effect. But your reputation – and other people’s – is never entirely in your hands. Oscar Wilde wrote “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” But if you seek renown, you may, on gaining it, find yourself looking at clippings and quotes and the general evidence of your izzat – and the effects of your spending its credit – and asking yourself, “Izzat what you wanted?”

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