How Do You Spell “Osama”?

Slate says “Osama.” The FBI says “Usama.” Should we call the whole thing off?

No! As most everyone knows, the Arabic alphabet differs from the Latin alphabet. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters rather than 26, and it uses completely different characters—some of which, including the first character of Bin Laden’s first name, do not have directly corresponding sounds in English.

Changing letters or words from one alphabet into the corresponding letters or words from another alphabet is called transliteration. Rendering a language from another alphabet (or from a pictographic system such as Chinese) into the Latin alphabet is called Romanization.

A variety of systems exist to Romanize Arabic letters and words, but there is no dominant one. The International Journal of Middle East Studiesoffers one system, the Library of Congress a slightly different one. And not all publications consistently follow one system, either. Historical tradition for a particular place or name can win out, and so can personal preference. Or the ad hoc spelling established by the Associated Press or the New York Times can become the standard. If an Arab attains fame in the West, academics and specialists will usually yield to the spelling popularized by journalists. For example, the IJMES transliteration of the al-Qaida leader would be “Usama ibn Ladin,” but the journal will probably use “Osama bin Laden” in the future. Call it the tyranny of citation.

The difficulty in Romanizing Arabic was illustrated in the 1980s by the multiple spellings for Libyan strongman Moammar/Muammar Gadaffi/Gaddafi/Gathafi/Kadafi/Kaddafi/Khadafy/Qadhafi/Qathafi/ etc. The official Library of Congress transliteration would be “Qadhdhafi,” but the library opted for “Quaddafi” instead, because the “dhdh” looked so strange in English. In 1986, most publications, including the AP, adopted “Gadhafi” as the new standard. Why? The Libyan leader had sent letters to American schoolchildren and a minister. The typed name over his Arabic signature: Moammar El-Gadhafi. (Before that, he had refused to Romanize his name.) The AP stylebook says, “people are entitled to be known however they want to be known as long as their identities are clear.” (That explains the different spellings for King Hussain of Jordan and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whose last names are identical in Arabic.)

How does Osama/Usama want his name to be spelled? In a document published by the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 3, 2001, the al-Qaida leader Romanized his name as “Usama.” That hasn’t been enough to get the AP or Slate to change their stylebooks. Would an announcement on al-Jazeera do the trick?

Bonus Explainers: Another note on Arabic transliterations: Many people think “Abdul” is an Arabic name. In fact, “Abdul” is a Romanization of “Abd al-,” meaning “servant (or slave) of the.” Many Arabic names start with “Abd al-” or “Abdul,” followed by one of the Quranic names that refer to God. For example, “Abdullah” or “Abd Allah” means “servant of God.” “Abdul Rahman” or “Abd al-Rahman” means “servant of the Merciful One.”

Joshua Micah Marshall tells Explainer: “Arab surnames, as long as I can remember, have always been rendered ‘ibn’ such and such, in English. Now all of a sudden Bin Laden comes along and he’s ‘bin,’ not ‘ibn.’ Is he a trendsetter? Is the sense that ‘ibn’ is too difficult and all the Arab names are being dumbed down to ‘bin’ now?” Explainer wishes that were the case, because it would be a better story. The real answer: In colloquial Arabic in the Persian Gulf, the word meaning “son of” is pronounced “bin,” not “ibn,” when it refers to a family name. Hence, the popular Romanization conveys the pronunciation “bin,” and not “ibn.”

Finally, Kathy Park wants to know why “Moslem” is considered an offensive spelling. The problem with spelling the Arabic word meaning “one who surrenders to God” as “Moslem” and not “Muslim” is that people end up pronouncing it mawslem, which is a different word that means “oppressor.”

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Explainer thanks Maher Awad of the University of Pennsylvania; Shiva Balghi of New York University; Brenda Bickett, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies bibliographer at Georgetown University; Juan Cole, editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies; Norm Goldstein, stylebook editor for the Associated Press; and John Voll of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.