Word Routes

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!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 26th 2011, 8:29 AM
Comment by: Kate H.
At least they didn't refer to him as "Walking Eagle"...
Thursday May 26th 2011, 11:43 AM
Comment by: Shey (Eugene, OR)
I find it very interesting how a simple word can be perceived so differently by so many people. At first glance, neither word struck a chord with me at all. Even Geronimo I assumed that it was from the military phonetic alphabet and stood for 'G' rather than the historical figure of the man, Geronimo. After a bit of research on the phonetic alphabet I find that George or Golf is used to represent 'G'. So I'll have to assume that neither agency meant any harm or foulplay with their use of these particular codenames. I'll even bet that there are probably many watercooler jokes in each office as to the political correctness of codenames and a plan to divvy up the codename memo making responsibilities as we speak!

Your data about Chalaque and Cherokee native pronunciation is quite interesting. I enjoyed learning the original word and when I practice saying it and hearing its realization, it's much easier to see how it could be misheard phonetically by foreign ears. Thank you :)
Thursday May 26th 2011, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Patricia B. (Bokeelia, FL)
As children my friends and I would yell,"Geronimo!, as we jumped into a swimming pool or off a raft into a lake. It was just something we yelled with no thought of its meaning. This was during WW11 and I have a vague feeling now that we associated it with the dropping of bombs on the enemy.
Thursday May 26th 2011, 10:00 PM
Comment by: Ron H. (Lady Lake, FL)
I would think Geronimo would be proud; what more could a warrior want to be remembered by. We thinking of greatness doing something beyond the everyday when we call out his name. As children playing you doing something that is risky but with great feeling and confidents. Above all it winning.
Saturday May 28th 2011, 5:42 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
Patricia: Children in Spain sometimes yell "¡ Al agua, patos ! when they jump into a swimming pool or any other body of water (roughly translated as "Let's jump in, my fellow ducks") so I don't think there will be any controversy or offence !
Saturday May 28th 2011, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Ross L (Sooke Canada)
Our values colour (yes, with a 'u') our perspective and then we interpret our perspective before we make meaning of and sometimes for others, all the while attempting to find a touchstone for our reality by creating inter-subjective truths with others... Ah me. It is far to easy to be seen as offensive, so I attempt to follow the advise of a wise friend who once told me, "judge a man by his heart, not his head." Good advice?
Sunday May 29th 2011, 2:26 PM
Comment by: Deborah D.
Without the spelling, only hearing the word, it could be related to—or even be—one of Pres. Obama's seemingly favorite words, "shellac".
Thursday June 16th 2011, 12:29 PM
Comment by: Adriana B. (Bogota Colombia)
I dont think thats good
Monday August 8th 2011, 2:56 PM
Comment by: Lahop2it (Issaquah, WA)
I wish more people would take the advice of Anonymous regarding judging a man by his heart. I stick my foot in my mouth all the time. Mostly it isn't intentional. If I speak about a "black" person, it is purely a way of easy identification. Yesterday, I was asking my husband (he's in Human Resources) what the politically correct reference would be for "us white folk." If black people want to be called African Americans, does that make those of us with white skin just Americans? And, what about the black people from Jamaica? Wouldn't they be offended if I refered to them as African Americans just because their skin is black? I believe that this "politically correct" nonesense has been forced upon us by the ACLU and money mongering attorneys, and I, for one, will no longer be apart of it.

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