July 09, 2005

Robin Cook tries his hand at linguistic analysis of Arabic

Robin Cook, former British foreign secretary, has recently published a bit of political linguistics, or perhaps linguistic politics, in the Guardian:

Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally "the database", was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden's organisation would turn its attention to the west.

But as Tim Buckwalter explained here yesterday,

The word "qa'idah" ("qa'idat" in construct cases) is a neutral word meaning "base," as in "military base" (qa'idah 'askariyah) or "database" (qa'idat bayanat), and it collocates naturally and frequently with "jihad." So, al-Qa'idah is really "the Base for Waging Jihad," or "the Base" for short.

The full, and highly frequent, Arabic phrase for "al-Qa'idah in Iraq" is "tanzim qa'idat al-jihad fi bilad al-rafidain," or "(the) organization (of the) base (of) the-jihad in (the) lands (of) the-two_tributaries" (i.e., the Tigris and Euphrates).

So al-qa'ida doesn't mean "the database" any more (or any less) than English base means "database". I should think that Cook would be in a position to get better linguistic advice, if he wanted it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 9, 2005 10:35 PM