February 12, 2007

The barrage against "Barack"

Sen. Barack Obama has already faced tiresome media scrutiny about his last name ("Obama" evokes Osama!) and his middle name ("Hussein" evokes Saddam!), so it was only a matter of time before his first name got the once-over. Even though David Wallis of Slate described "Barack" as "unfamiliar but innocuous" and hence the least problematic of his three names, now comes some fresh nonsense claiming that Obama has been somehow duplicitous in explaining the origins of his given name. The charge was aired by Mike Allen, former White House correspondent for Time who was recently snapped up by a new online magazine called The Politico. On Feb. 10, Allen published a piece entitled "Undoing Obama: Inside the Coming Effort to Dismantle A Candidate," which warns Obama that his "free ride is ending" and that he is about to "endure a going-over that would make a proctologist blush." So what's the very first question that Allen says Obama will have to answer?

Why has he sometimes said his first name is Arabic, and other times Swahili?

Further down, Allen elaborates on the question:

Even his name offers fodder for the critics. When he was growing up, his family, friends and teachers called him "Barry." Then as a young man, he started insisting on "Barack," explaining in a memoir published in 1995 that his grandfather was a Muslim and that it means "blessed" in Arabic. His dad, who was Kenyan, had gone by "Barry" -- probably trying to fit in when he came to the States, his son figured. On the campaign trail during his 2004 Senate race, Obama told reporters that "Barack" was Swahili for "blessed by God."

Is this really the best that Obama's opponents can do? And shouldn't a seasoned political reporter like Mike Allen have done just a little bit of legwork to investigate this alleged inconsistency? Many voices in the blogosphere, such as Brad DeLong, Matthew Yglesias, and The Poor Man, pounced on Allen's story to make a very simple point: there is no inconsistency in Obama's interpretations, since "Barack" is rooted in both Arabic and Swahili. Swahili has an enormous number of loanwords from Arabic, and "Bara(c)k" is pretty obviously one of them. It's derived from the Arabic triliteral B-R-K (برك), the morphological basis for many words having to do with the act of blessing. Commenting on Crooks and Liars, bulbul (one of the erudite regulars in Languagehat's comment section) provides this helpful background:

I'd venture a guess and say that Obama's name comes from "baaraka" (بارك), a III. form verb which most often crops up in the phrase "baarak(a) Allaah fiik" (بارك الله فيك) meaning "may God bless you" or even "thank you". My Swahili dictionary lists "barak(a)" as a noun meaning "blessing, prosperity, abundance".
The Arabic for "blessed" is "mubaarak" (مبارك), as in the surname of the Egyptian president.
So to recap: Barak Obama's first name is both Swahili (as it is a part of Swahili lexicon) and Arabic (since it is Arabic by origin).

Some of the critics of Allen's piece could stand to do a little linguistic research too. Matt Stoller on MyDD claims that "Swahili and Arabic are extremely similar languages because of millenia of trade between East Africa and the Middle East." Similarly, The Daily Background posits that "Swahili is very similar to Arabic (in fact the former evolved out of the latter)." Swahili and Arabic are in different, unrelated language families, and any similarities derive strictly from Arabic borrowings into the Swahili lexicon. Meanwhile, Media Matters admirably links to the Kamusi Project, a Swahili dictionary project originally at Yale, but misreads the entry for barak(a). Bariki is not the Arabic root, as Media Matters claims, but is rather one of the related Swahili words listed in the entry (kibaraka and tabaruki are also listed).

Journalistic silliness over Obama's first name is nothing new. Back in July 2004, when Obama was first running for Senate, Jim Geraghty of the National Review Online was already depicting him as the Democrats' dream candidate:

Before ducking off from the press scrum, Obama took a moment to explain that his first name is Swahili, and means "one who is blessed by God." It also relates, through Arabic and Semitic roots, to the Hebrew baruch, which means "blessed."
An African-American Senate candidate who can speak a little Hebrew? Could focus groups have come up with a better candidate for a diverse America?

Arabic barak(a) is cognate with Hebrew baruch, so Obama can "speak a little Hebrew"? I'm hoping Geraghty was just joking about that. But if questions linger about the origins of "Barack," I wouldn't be surprised if Obama defuses the doubters by pointing out the shared Semitic root of baruch. Along the same lines, the New York Times recently reported on an imam and a rabbi in Minneapolis who jointly teach lessons on the kinship between Arabic and Hebrew, "using etymology as a symbol of a shared Abrahamic heritage." That sounds like a refreshing application of etymological understanding, and a welcome antidote to divisive arguments about language, culture, and religion.

[Update, 2/14: See this follow-up post for various reader comments and questions.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 12, 2007 02:21 PM