The Grammarphobia Blog

Pax Syriana

Q: Could you please tell me the root of the word “Syriana”? I believe it was used to refer to the area between present-day Iraq and Lebanon, perhaps in the 18th or 19th century.

A: Originally, “Pax Syriana” was the name given to a brief truce between warring Christian and Muslim factions in Lebanon in early 1976 – “pax” because it’s Latin for “peace” and “Syriana” because the truce was enforced by Syria. The expression appeared in Time magazine on May 31, 1976.

The phrase echoes such Latin or Latinized expressions as “Pax Britannica” and “Pax Romana” and “Pax Sovietica.”

In fact, the English adjective for “Syria” is “Syrian,” not “Syriana.” None of the English dictionaries that I usually consult, including the Oxford English Dictionary, include entries for, or references to, the Latinized adjective “Syriana.”

Since it first appeared, “Pax Syriana” has been used more broadly to refer to the post-civil war period in Lebanon (1990-2005).

The 2005 movie “Syriana,” starring George Clooney, took its name from “Pax Syriana,” according to the film’s director and screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan.

Gaghan explained in a Washington Post online discussion in 2005 that “Syriana” was a term he’d heard in think tanks. “I believe it referenced the Pax Syriana, but in the fall of ’02 it seemed to stand for a hypothetical redrawing of the boundaries in the Middle East,” he said.

“For my purposes,” he added, “I thought it was just a great word that could stand for man’s perpetual hope of remaking any geographic region to suit his own needs, a dream that in the case of the Middle East has been going on at least since the time of Caesar in 80 BC.”

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