Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Searching for Obama in his Name

President Barack ObamaThe Republican presidential campaign seems to be attempting to raise fears of an Obama presidency by references to his names. His middle name, Hussein, is an easy key to associate with Sadam Hussein, so long as no one remembers King Hussein of Jordan, long one of our strongest supporters.

Senator Obama’s first name, however, is far more interesting if wholly and totally unrelated to his character and presidential campaign. My friend Paul Ogden did a little basic research on this name. The results were so fascinating that I couldn’t resist doing a bit on my own and reporting the results here.

The basic Semitic (Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew) meaning of barak is “blessing”. It is a word that appears in the Old Testament more than 300 times. But did you know about the ancient Semitic tradition of sealing a successful business deal or other negotiation with an exchange of gifts, called al-baraka “the blessing” in Arabic.

The Spaniards adopted the practice during the Moorish Period of their history, referring to the gift with the Arabic word, which became albaroque in Spanish. This word then appeared in Ango-Norman (French spoken in England) as abrocour and brocour which, by folk etymology, eventually became broker, something we would hope any US president would be good at. Diamond brokers around the world today seal their deals with a handshake and proclaiming mazel and brocha “luck and a blessing”, brocha being a variant of barak(a).

One of the best brokers in US history was Bernard Baruch, who later became one of the most trusted advisors of President Franklin Roosevelt, the last president called upon to save the US from a financial crisis. Baruch means “blessed” and is the past passive participle of baraka “to bless”. (Baruch is famous for saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”)

The Semitic root of baraka is brk. (In the Semitic languages, the various forms of word are created by changing the vowels in the root.) We find the same the word in the last name of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Many linguists think that brk descended from krb. If so, Barak is also related to the source of the English word cherub, about as far away from a terrorist as we can get. 

One Response to “Searching for Obama in his Name”

  1. Brian Johnson Says:

    King Hussein of Lebanon?? Is “Lebanon” simply a typographical error for “Jordan”?

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