Obama's British codename: Is it an insult?
Scotland Yard gave President Obama the codename of "chalaque" during his visit to Britain. The Daily Mail says it's a derogatory term in Punjabi. Asra Nomani's grandmother confirms it's not a nice term in Urdu or Hindi either.
By Asra Q. NomaniSkip to next paragraph
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Before President Obama’s arrival in London, The Daily Mail ran a story under the headline “Codename ‘smart alec’: British police label Obama with ‘mildly offensive’ Punjabi word for visit to U.K.” Scotland Yard says its computers randomly picked a codename for Obama, “chalaque,” for his visit to the country. But the newspaper quoted a Sikh community leader saying the name is often used to “denigrate” someone. Yahoo News then picked up the story, featuring it on its homepage under the headline: “Obama Code Named ‘smart alec’ in Britain.”
As someone who grew up hearing chalak used to describe someone who is a notch below diabolical, I had to laugh. The West may try to assert cultural prowess economically, militarily, and diplomatically, but Obama’s codename is yet another example of cross-cultural communication lost in translation.
I double-checked with the best person I could find on the nuances of the propriety of South Asian culture: my mother, Sajida Nomani, a native speaker of Urdu schooled in the highly mannered culture, called adab in Arabic, of Lucknow, India, a sort of Charleston, S.C., of South Asia. She is a grandmother with a discerning ear. Chalak, as it’s usually spelled phonetically, isn’t just a Punjabi word, but also found in Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali. Verbally, Hindi and Urdu are very similar, and Punjabi and Bengali are related to Hindi and Urdu.
No doubt about it, she said. “It’s an insult.” My mother dusted off our edition of the Oxford Practical English-Urdu Dictionary, published in Lahore, Pakistan, by the Oriental Book Society on Ganpat Road, and turned to page 156 [PDF], where she read the definition of chalak. It read: “adj. skilful; knowing; crafty; sly.” My father, Zafar Nomani, then faxed me over a copy of pages of the dictionary, including 156.