What’s the Name of Saddam Hussein?

There is some confusion over whom the U.S. didn’t bomb last weekend. We spared “Mr. Hussein” says the New York Times; actually, it was “Saddam Hussein” says the Washington Post; no, it was just “Saddam” say USA Today and the Times’ William Safire. Who’s right?

The name “Saddam Hussein” isn’t like “Bill Clinton” or “Jiang Zemin”, which are both composed of a given name and a family name (“Bill” and “Zemin” are the given names). Saddam Hussein has no family name. Rather “Hussein” is the name his parents gave the nascent dictator, and “Saddam” is an epithet he adopted before he grabbed power, and is derived from the Persian word meaning “crush.” “Saddam Hussein” is best translated as Hussein-Who-Crushes-Obstacles or Hussein-the-Destroyer.

In other words, the Washington Post gets it right by consistently using “Saddam Hussein”. References to “Mr. Hussein” or “Saddam” are as syntactically absurd as referring to a certain late wrestler by “Mr. Andre” or “the Giant”.

Nor is it uncommon for Near Easterners to have only a given name and no family name. In this century, regional governments have encouraged citizens to adopt place names as surnames–by this system, the Iraqi dictator would be “Hussein Tikriti”, because he comes from an area known as Tikrit.

Oh yeah. It’s pronounced “Sad-DAHM”.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Professor of the Practice of Persian and Other Near Eastern Languages Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr. of Harvard University for his help.