Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 9 News List

A politician by any other name poses problems

What to call the new Palestinian prime minister? His formal name is Mahmoud Abbas, yet he is also known as Abu Mazen. What's a poor writer to do?

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

What shall we call the new prime minister whose nomination was approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council?

Nobody doubts that his formal name is Mahmoud Abbas. Yet almost every written and spoken reference to that name is followed by "also known as" -- or that phrase's breezy initialism a.k.a. (or aka, as The New York Times would have it) or the somewhat sinister "alias" -- Abu Mazen. Such a need to doubly identify him drives many journalists and all headline writers up the Western Wall (formerly "Wailing Wall," but Israelis did not like that image).

Here's the onomastic, or naming, problem: Many Arabs have both formal names and familiar names. The prime minister's formal name is Mahmoud Abbas; in writing about him in Western style, the second reference can be to "Mr. Abbas." (Arabs would say al-Sayyid Mahmoud Abbas, with the al-Sayyid, originally "chief," now the equivalent of "mister.")

Abbas also has what is called in Arabic a kunya, a nickname that most often refers specifically to one's offspring. Abbas' kunya begins with Abu (which means "father," akin to the Aramaic abba) and ends with Mazen, which was the name of his eldest son, who died last year. Mohammed Sawaie, professor of Arabic at the University of Virginia, tells me that the name suggests muzn, which can mean "white cloud" or "water," both happy sights in an arid area. It may also call to mind the name of an ancient Arab tribe known for its bravery, the Banu Mazin.

An Arab male with a son is usually called "father of [name of first son]," because having a male heir is a matter of great pride. (In the same way in the West, & Son used to be in the names of family companies; only in our time did & Daughter surface.)

If an Arab man has no son, he may be called familiarly by Abu followed by the name of his father, or grandfather, as a substitute until he has a son, on the assumption that he will name his future son after his father.

Or he may adopt a nom de guerre, as Yasser Arafat, who has no son, apparently did with Abu Ammaar, unless this was an indication that he intended to name a son Ammaar or Ammar. Abu Ammaar as a cognomen for Yasser may be an example of a traditional, "fossilized" kunya like Abu Khalil, which means "friend of God" and is applied to anyone named Ibrahim (in Hebrew, Avraham).

Abu may be followed by a characteristic rather than a proper name. One of the most famous kunyas is Abu Lahab, named in the Koran as the enemy uncle of the prophet Muhammad. "Abu Lahab" means "father of flames," which could indicate that he had a fiery temper or that he was "destined for hell."

With that as the linguistic background, here's what I suggest. If you want to show your familiarity with, or admiration for, the prime minister, refer to Abbas informally as Abu Mazen. (The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, does. When I asked, "What about the new prime minister?" Arik replied, "You mean Abu Mazen?") "Arik" is short for "Ariel," and it may be what the new Palestinian leader, Abbas, called Sharon some years ago on a visit to the Israeli's farm.

However, if you want to write about the Palestinian prime minister, you cannot correctly use "Mr. Mazen," because that is not his name. The "father of," Abu, must remain attached to Mazen as one familiarism. (I resurrect the archaic familiarism because Abu Mazen is not as onomastically breezy as a nickname. If you have a better word for "honorific nickname, but not a sobriquet" -- like "Lion of Judah" -- zing it along to onlanguage@nytimes.com.)

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