Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Code Name Watch: Obama the "Smart Alec"?
A few weeks ago, we reported on a mini-controversy stemming from the raid of Osama bin Laden, where the code name "Geronimo" was used. That drew the ire of some Native American groups who saw an unfortunate equivalence being drawn to a legendary warrior. Now we have a new code name controversy: for President Obama's visit to the United Kingdom, Scotland Yard has used the code name "Chalaque," which some newspapers have explained as a Punjabi word meaning "smart alec."
First, an update on the "Geronimo" brouhaha. Though there was much debate over whether "Geronimo" was being used as a code name for bin Laden himself or for the entire operation, Obama seemed to settle the matter by telling "60 Minutes" that "Geronimo was the code name for Osama." But then a different (and, to my mind, plausible) explanation emerged in an Associated Press article about the raid:
Back at the White House Situation Room, word was relayed that bin Laden had been found, signaled by the code word "Geronimo." That was not bin Laden's code name, but rather a representation of the letter "G." Each step of the mission was labeled alphabetically, and "Geronimo" meant that the raiders had reached step "G," the killing or capture of bin Laden, two officials said.
Now, it's possible that this "Step A" through "Step G" code-name sequence wasn't fully explained to the group in Situation Room, who only knew to listen for "Geronimo" as the signal that the team had reached its target. But that goes against President Obama's own recollection, as he said on "60 Minutes," that "they said Geronimo has been killed." We may never know the full story of the code name, but the uncertainty over its usage likely does little to assuage the Native American groups that took offense over the perception that bin Laden was being equated with the real-life Geronimo.
On to "Chalaque." It was first reported in a gossip column in The Daily Telegraph on May 11 that the code name used for Obama's state visit would be "Chalaque." The columnist breathlessly added that even though Scotland Yard randomly assigns code names, this one had a derogatory meaning in the Punjabi language:
In Punjabi, the word is used to describe someone who is cheeky, sharp, crafty and too clever for his or her own good.
One Punjabi speaker tells me that it carries mildly disrespectful connotations and adds it hardly helps matters that it sounds so much like "macaque", which she had initially thought I had said.
Other British papers such as The Guardian and The Daily Mail quickly followed suit. The Times quoted Indarjit Singh, a Punjabi speaker and Sikh organizer, as saying that the word "is sometimes used when we want to denigrate someone who we think is too clever for their own good." Soon the gloss "smart alec" hit the headlines, in both the UK and the US. (In American English, the term is usually spelled smart aleck.) Even more inflammatorily, Asra Q. Nomani wrote a piece for The Huffington Post with the headline, "The Insult Behind Obama's U.K. Codename." The word chalak, Nomani explained, "isn't just a Punjabi word, but also found in Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali," and she says it's "a putdown" across all of these languages.
So what's the real story here? First of all, CBS News checked with London's Metropolitan Police and found that "Chalaque" was "the operational name for the state visit," and not a code name for Obama himself. So the confusion in the popular press appears to be quite similar to the "Geronimo" case: code names don't necessarily have to refer to individuals.
But beyond that apparent misrepresentation, is there any reason to believe that Scotland Yard got "Chalaque" from Punjabi (or Urdu, or Hindi, or Bengali)? In transliterations of the word into Roman characters, it tends to be spelled chalak, sometimes with accent marks on the vowels. Here, for instance, is the entry in The Vanguard Punjabi English Dictionary, reproduced online (also illustrating the wide range of meanings for the word):
CHALÁK ਚਲਾਕ Corruption of the Persian word chálák.
Active, alert, clever, ingenious, dexterous, expert, nimble, fleet, swift; artful, designing, tricky: —chalák log, Sharpers, swindlers.
When I look for the spelling Chalaque, all I find are references to the name given to the Cherokee people of North America by Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The word first shows up in records of Hernando de Soto's expedition to Florida in 1540, used as the name of a province. Later historians identified Chalaque as a Hispanicization of Tsalagi (the Cherokees' name for themselves).
It doesn't seem likely that Scotland Yard has any particular interest in historical names for Native Americans (Chalaque is no Geronimo, after all), but it likewise strains the imagination that they would have dug up a South Asian insult for someone "too clever for their own good." Let's take the word of the Metropolitan Police that the code name was randomly selected from a list, and that it was the name for the state visit and not the President anyway. After two such controversies in a single month, perhaps the moral of the story is that we shouldn't spend so much time trying to perform our own decoding of code names!