Is it disrespectful to refer to mecca when not referring to the Holy City?

Mecca is the holiest city of Islam because the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born there. Now this word is used to describe things that are at the centre of something - the shopping centre is a mecca for shopaholics.

I would be most grateful to know whether you think this is a disrespectful use of the word mecca. I never use the word mecca in this context but I see others doing so.

Grateful for your comments.

Original Post
A very interesting question, Susan!

Because Mecca is where Muslims are supposed to make a hajj, a pilgrimage, at least once in their lives if they can, the city has come to symbolize a place where people want to go.

What's important to remember is that when used in the expression you're citing, we use the indefinite article a and write the name with a small m. That's quite important to distinguish this use of the word from the name of the holy city in Saudi Arabia.

For those reasons, I don't think it's disrespectful to use the term in a sentence like The shopping center is a mecca for shopaholics. It simply means it's a place where shopaholics want to go. In fact, I wager that most English speakers who use or hear the term don't even make a connection with the holy city of Mecca! Wink
I was writing my response at the same time Richard was writing his, and independently of Richard. We certainly agree. Here's what I've written:

This is a very good question, Susan.

In English-speaking countries, people use the word ‘mecca’ to refer to the center of something important. I think most of us have always used it without thinking that it might be considered disrespectful by people to whom Mecca has a religious significance. Most of us know that it has that religious significance; when we use it to refer to an important center of something, the word means that people are drawn to the center of an idea or an ideal, like a magnet, like people are drawn to Mecca. As you know, the word mecca used in this sense is certainly not intended to be disrespectful in any way.

Here is the definition from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged*:

Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): -s
Usage: often capitalized
Etymology: from mecca, Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Muhammad and holy city of Islam
1 : a place regarded as the center of an activity or interest or as the goal of its practitioners or connoisseurs a white frame building that is the mecca of trout fishermen from all over the nation …he was good, good enough to play the Armistice day taps at Arlington, the mecca of all army buglers …London ... bookstores spell mecca for the collector and manna for the reader

From the Chicago Manual of Style**:
Mecca is capitalized when referring to the Islamic holy city, as is Utopia when referring to Thomas More’s imaginary country. Both are lowercased when used metaphorically. …
Stratford-upon-Avon is a mecca for Shakespeare enthusiasts.
She is trying to create a utopia for her children.


There are many examples in the current press, like these from the New York Times:

• When and why did Rockaway stop being the summertime mecca for New York ... Vince , Rockaway began to ebb as a summer mecca for New York City ..

• Fort Greene is Brooklyn's latest culinary mecca, or it's a bastion of African- American pride and culture, or the artistic center of the ...

• Once one of Europe's poorest cities, the Irish capital has recently become a business mecca. Above: the old-school pub Bernard Shaw attracts the cool crowd. ..

And these from the BBC:

• I grew up around the Isle of Man which is a mecca for motor sports and to be a professional was a big ambition. Team building is a big part of my world.

• For many people after Christmas, the gym is a mecca for anyone wanting to lose the festive flab. I realise that weight is a vital issue for many women, and men...

• Wrexham is and always will be a mecca for talented musos and bands. Wrexham was and still is the "mecca" of musical activity.

The word ‘mecca’ is from the Arabic. Other common words in English from Arabic are, for example, algebra, sheriff, tariff, coffee, giraffe, jar, saffron and sofa. There are many more. There are newer words today that we have learned recently: mullah, fatwa, burka, for example.

Linguistically, it is interesting to see how words are ‘borrowed’ from one language into another, and how the meanings evolve. The original Mecca is something concrete; now the non-religious idea of mecca expresses the essence of the original Mecca, but instead represents the idea of something with a similar characteristic, even though it is something different.

I think that ‘mecca’ used in the non-religious sense has no disrespectful meaning at all. It would be interesting to know if any of our members to whom the word Mecca has an important religious meaning feels offended if you hear or see mecca used in this lay sense by English-speakers. If that is true, I will use the word more circumspectly.
*"mecca." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. (31 Aug. 2009).
**The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition. The University of Chicago Press 2003

I am grateful to you both for such indepth and considered replies. However, I have a number of concerns.

1. did the original people who introduced this word intend no disrespect?
2. I am trying to find a date as to when the other meaning started to be used ie as a mecca for something. That might help in determining whether it is meant in a respectful way or not.
3. Certain things are very important to Muslims and even if we intended no disrespect, I think what Muslims feel should be considered as well. If they can make a case that this is objectively disrespectful then we should use other words.
I will ask some Muslims and give you the feedback, if I get any.
I'm Muslim, so I'd like to add my 2 cents here.

While I don't personally find the use of mecca in these senses disrespectful, I think a lot of Muslims do. The difference may be that I'm a convert and was accustomed to seeing the word meccca long before the city had any significance to me.

I think that this feeling of disrespect is why many Muslims -- and Saudi Arabia -- now spell the city Makkah. It is closer to the Arabic pronunciation and also distinguishes the city from the word mecca.

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