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What’s In (the Spelling of) a Name?

On the unusual transliteration, ‘ElBaradei’

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ElBaradei at Tahrir Square.(Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

This is not nearly as important a question as, say, “What are Egyptian opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei’s true politics?” or “To what extent would ElBaradei allow the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now backing him, to enact its agenda?” or “What exactly is the Brotherhood agenda?”

But here it is, anyway: Why his last name always, invariably transliterated from its native Arabic into English as “ElBaradei”? In every other instance where Arabic words are transliterated, the definite marker “el” or “al” is capitalized, and then it is either a separate word from the proper noun or it is connected to the proper noun by a hyphen: Al Jazeera; al-Qaeda; El Alamein, the World War Two battle-site; El-Kachef, the last name of ElBaradei’s wife. So what gives?

I asked two different Arabic speakers. Both confirmed that a/al is a definite article (much like the Hebrew ha-), essentially meaning “the,” and that in English el and al are interchangeable (“al” is French-inflected). But why no hyphen and no space? “What’s peculiar really is the joining together of the El and Baradei without a hyphen, because that’s just not common in transliteration,” confirmed one person I talked to. The other suggested the most purely accurate transliteration would be Muhammad Al-Barad’i; Wikipedia has Muḥammad al-Barādaʿī.

My best guess comes from one of my interlocutors: “Perhaps it’s how he himself chose to write it, and everyone simply picked it up from that.” But then, why did he choose to write it that way? Why the need to be distinctive? Can somebody please find this out for sure so that the armchair-psychologizing can begin?

Also, yes, we know he looks like Henry Waxman.

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According to a recent news report about him, he insisted it be written that way. But there was no mention of why.

Joe Legris says:

Check out the Seinfeld episode where George is being cared for in hospital by “Assman” the proctologist and Cosmo sees what he thinks is a human mutant termed the “pig man”. Hilarious.

The el/al (hah) thing isn’t French so much as it’s Egyptian — the El is how many Egyptians write and pronounce their dialect. My guess for the oddity of the one word thing is that otherwise he’d spend his life telling reporters “el-Baradei, lowercase e, hypen, yes, what?” pause “oh screw it, ElBaradei one word”.

sdberger says:

In Arabic it’s: محمد مصطفى البرادعي
So the combination of “El” with the rest of the word (as always required in Arabic orthography) is more faithful to the original.

At any rate, have you ever noticed how the media always precedes his name with “Noble prize laureate” as if that’s part of the name, lending unwarranted legitimacy to one who has recently said about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: “I consider it to be a joke… We’ve been talking about this peace process for over twenty years, yet all we see is the erosion of the Palestinian cause.” (

“I consider it to be a joke… We’ve been talking about this peace process for over twenty years, yet all we see is the erosion of the Palestinian cause.”

–Sounds to me like ElBaradei is a good observer–though it doesn’t take a genius to see this.

Joseph K says:

Interestingly, when you place Baradei in the Arabic into google translate the english translation turns up as “Allegedly”. El in the Arabic turns up a translation of “Land”. El is also one of the many hebrew names for God. So (I know I’m stretching here) do we have someone who’s name means “allegedly god”? What a great name for an “AntiChrist”. LOL.


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What’s In (the Spelling of) a Name?

On the unusual transliteration, ‘ElBaradei’

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