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Spelling it out

Coming from the land that made us change Mao Tse-Tung to Mao Zedong and Peking to Beijing — not to mention Tibet to Tibetan Autonomous Region — one should have thought that more important matters related to US-China ties would grab attention than spelling a Kenyan name.

india Updated: Nov 17, 2009 21:36 IST

The last time there was nervousness surrounding the name of an American president or presidential candidate was when Bob Dole was running against Bill Clinton for the White House top job. The Arab world went into a tizzy not because it had something ideological against the 1996 Democrat presidential candidate, but because ‘Dole’ sounded like the Arabic word for penis. So when Mr Clinton did win the presidency, much more than the Beach Boys-loving ‘did not inhale’ liberals, Arabs breathed a sigh of relief. After all, who wants to read a headline: ‘Penis new US president’? This time, the rustle over how to spell Barack Obama’s name in Mandarin is, therefore, small print stuff. As Mr Obama hit the Chinese road on Monday, some mandarins were scratching their metaphorical goatees about how to spell his name. Is it ‘Aobama’, as the Han would have it? Or should it be ‘Oubama’, the way US officials want it to be?

Coming from the land that made us change Mao Tse-Tung to Mao Zedong and Peking to Beijing — not to mention Tibet to Tibetan Autonomous Region — one should have thought that more important matters related to US-China ties would grab attention than spelling a Kenyan name. But the politics of names do matter. If the Americans want to spell their president’s name in Mandarin in a certain way, it should be their prerogative. Just as the Chinese way of having the surname before the name — Mr Wen, not Mr Jiabao — should be respected.

Thankfully, we Indians with our Babel-speak give names a wide berth. It really doesn’t matter whether we’re writing ‘Cheen’ for China and ‘Umrika’ for America in, say, Devnagari. Frankly, we know that whatever way we spell Manmohan Singh, he’ll still be the mild-mannered gent in a blue pagdi. Or is it pugree?The last time there was nervousness surrounding the name of an American president or presidential candidate was when Bob Dole was running against Bill Clinton for the White House top job. The Arab world went into a tizzy not because it had something ideological against the 1996 Democrat presidential candidate, but because ‘Dole’ sounded like the Arabic word for penis. So when Mr Clinton did win the presidency, much more than the Beach Boys-loving ‘did not inhale’ liberals, Arabs breathed a sigh of relief. After all, who wants to read a headline: ‘Penis new US president’? This time, the rustle over how to spell Barack Obama’s name in Mandarin is, therefore, small print stuff. As Mr Obama hit the Chinese road on Monday, some mandarins were scratching their metaphorical goatees about how to spell his name. Is it ‘Aobama’, as the Han would have it? Or should it be ‘Oubama’, the way US officials want it to be?

Coming from the land that made us change Mao Tse-Tung to Mao Zedong and Peking to Beijing — not to mention Tibet to Tibetan Autonomous Region — one should have thought that more important matters related to US-China ties would grab attention than spelling a Kenyan name. But the politics of names do matter. If the Americans want to spell their president’s name in Mandarin in a certain way, it should be their prerogative. Just as the Chinese way of having the surname before the name — Mr Wen, not Mr Jiabao — should be respected.

Thankfully, we Indians with our Babel-speak give names a wide berth. It really doesn’t matter whether we’re writing ‘Cheen’ for China and ‘Umrika’ for America in, say, Devnagari. Frankly, we know that whatever way we spell Manmohan Singh, he’ll still be the mild-mannered gent in a blue pagdi. Or is it pugree?