Osama bin Laden: slippery characters

Posted on 6 May 2011


"Well, I've never seen them in the same room before..."

While the world is deciding whether it wants to return Barack Obama to “hero” status after the capture and killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, or bay for his blood for not releasing the “gory, inflammatory” photos of bin Laden’s lifeless, bloodied corpse – one thing seems to be troubling both politicians and reporters in equal measure.

Getting tongue-tied and coming out with “Obama” instead of “Osama”.

And not just tongue-tied, but Twitter-tied, too. As with MSNBC reporter Norah O’Donnell:

“Obama shot and killed.”

She later corrected herself and deleted the offending tweet.

It’s easily done – especially when just using the one word – Barack’s surname or bin Laden’s first name. And of course it doesn’t mean that you’ve confused them in your head.

Technically, writing just ‘bin Laden’ actually isn’t quite right if we’re being true to local customs. “Bin Laden” is his patronymic, as in son of Laden – and can’t really be used in isolation, unlike with Russian, for example, where you can just shout someone’s patronymic at them – “Eh, Petrovich!”

I suppose we’re used to turning patronymics – McDonald, Fitzpatrick, O’Connor, Williamson – into surnames. So therefore ‘bin Laden’ is perfectly logically, although unwittingly, turned into a surname. Although that doesn’t make it right!

And we do follow local commons when it comes to Asian names and surnames being in the opposite positive: Ban Ki Moon > Mr Ban; Thaksin Shinawatra > Mr Thaksin.

So, it should really be ‘Osama’ or ‘Osama bin Laden’, as his full name is Osama, son of Mohammed, son of Awad, son of Laden – أسامة بن محمد بن عوض بن لادن‎  (ʾUsāmah bin Muħammad bin ʿAwadˤ bin Lādin).

You may have also noticed that, much as with Gaddafi/Qadhafi etc., Osama is transliterated in a number of ways. Again, this is because there is no standard, universal accepted-by-all system for transliterating Arabic.

You’ll find…

Usama bin Laden, Usama bin Ladin, Ussamah Bin Ladin, Oussama Ben Laden, Osama Binladen Osama Binladin

If we transliterate from Modern Standard Arabic – we get Usamah bin Ladin.

The variation comes in the vowels. In Standard Arabic – there are three vowels, all long and short:

  • ʾalifا  – /a/
  • yahي – /i/
  • waw – و – /u/

As you see below, they either stand alone as these letters – when they are long vowels (three on the right), or they are short vowels and are not represented as separate letters (three on the left) – and the diacritics usuall aren’t shown either (except in dictionaries, encyclopedias and children’s books).

The little diacritics are cute, right? They’ve got their own names:  fat’hah – /a/, kasrah – /i/, and dammah – /u/.

Anyway, all this explains why in many US governmental and some media outlets you find Usama. But most frequently found around the world is, as I’m using, Osama bin Laden.

As with the Gaddafi conundrum, the spellings –  here with the o and the e – come from regional influences. Here – it’s an influence from Afghan Persian pronunciation.

With “Gaddafi” vs the rest, you could justify the most common found from the Libyan pronunciation that the man himself would be using.

But Osama was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where it’s a definite [u]sama, even though he spent his later years in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But then again, Osama’s now dead and “buried” at sea and Gaddafi is still alive (despite Nato’s best efforts), so – Osama’s not here to fight his corner.

And in terms of whether or not they should release the photos, they should probably just remember that old industry adage:

If it doesn’t happen on TV, it doesn’t happen!

I imagine they’ll get leaked eventually. Perhaps that’s how the US wants it to happen anyway, so they can be up-in-arms about it (but actually quietly smug)…


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