I wasn’t raised in any religion, so when I picked up the Arabic phrase insha’allah—“God willing”—while living in Muslim countries, it was purely out of cross-cultural fondness. In Egypt, where I first learned the phrase, insha’allah is said so frequently that it’s impossible to tell whether it’s just a deeply ingrained linguistic habit (similar to Americans’ use of “like”) or a reflection of the wild unpredictability of when and how anything will actually get done in Egypt. It may be both. My American roommates and I quickly adopted the phrase and were unsettled to have to weed it out of our vocab after leaving. It had turned out to be a quite practical qualifier, as well as a conversational tic that, like, rolled off the tongue.
Even today, when it’s been more than two years since I’ve lived in an Arabic-speaking country, insha’allah tumbles out of my mouth like a child doing somersaults—a word that lives purely in the moment without concern for context. Yet my own rational relationship to the term has changed. I still don’t have a religious connection to it, however, my awareness that we really don’t know what will happen tomorrow has grown since my time in Cairo. Now, if I say “see you soon” at the end of an email, I follow it with insha’allah mostly out of habit, but when I pause to analyze my use of the term, I recognize that whether I will actually see that person soon is out of my hands. It’s in God’s hands, as those who follow monotheistic religions would say.
Linguists can tell interesting stories about how words and phrases have changed in societies throughout history, but we can also tell our own stories about how experiences alter the meanings of words in our lives. Do you have any stories like this? My example is rather somber but I imagine there are funny ones, too.