Mecca

Mecca is a place name, a toponym, that has acquired a figurative meaning over the years. Literally, it is a city in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, to which devout Muslims are required to undertake a pilgrimage to at some point in their lives. Figuratively, it is used to refer to any place that attracts a certain group of people or that is the center of their activity, as in, Las Vegas is a Mecca for gamblers or the new mall is a mecca for shoppers. The pilgrimage metaphor underlying the figurative sense is obvious, but when did the sense develop?

Mecca is a variation on the Arabic name for the city, Makka or Makkah. An earlier name for the city is Bakkah, but in present-day usage that word is generally reserved for the sacred space around the Kaaba within the modern city. The ultimate etymologies of both names are obscure.

The figurative use developed in the early nineteenth century. Edward Baines, in his 1817 History of the Wars of the French Revolution, wrote of the conflict between the British East India Company and the Maratha Empire in India:

Colonel Harcourt accordingly proceeded to Jagarnaut, the Mecca of the Hindoos, and on the 18th encamped in the neighbourhood of this metropolis of idolatry, the Pagoda having been previously evacuated by the Mahratta forces.

Here the use is still in a religious context but is not a reference to Islam.

The metaphor is completely separated from religion within a few years. An anonymous writer, going by the name of Scotus, writes of the glories of an Edinburgh medical education in the pages of the Lancet in 1826:

It was consequently the “Mecca,” the “Delphic Oracle,” the “Vale of Egeria,” to which all studious pilgrims should resort to drink of the pure springs of knowledge.

Many Muslims consider the figurative use of Mecca to be offensive, and it’s easy to see why when a spiritual practice is associated with such materialistic pursuits like gambling or shopping. To ameliorate this, many style guides recommend using lower case and an indefinite article when using Mecca figuratively, but that doesn’t seem like much of a fix.


Sources:

Baines, Edward. History of the Wars of the French Revolution, vol. 1 of 2. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1817, 451.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2011, s.v. Mecca, n.

Scotus. “Sketches of the Medical Schools of Scotland.” The Lancet, vol. 7, no. 169, 25 November 1826, 254–256: 254.

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