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ElBaradei at Tahrir Square.(Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

This is not nearly as important a question as, say, “What are Egyptian opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei’s true politics?” or “To what extent would ElBaradei allow the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now backing him, to enact its agenda?” or “What exactly is the Brotherhood agenda?”

But here it is, anyway: Why his last name always, invariably transliterated from its native Arabic into English as “ElBaradei”? In every other instance where Arabic words are transliterated, the definite marker “el” or “al” is capitalized, and then it is either a separate word from the proper noun or it is connected to the proper noun by a hyphen: Al Jazeera; al-Qaeda; El Alamein, the World War Two battle-site; El-Kachef, the last name of ElBaradei’s wife. So what gives?

I asked two different Arabic speakers. Both confirmed that a/al is a definite article (much like the Hebrew ha-), essentially meaning “the,” and that in English el and al are interchangeable (“al” is French-inflected). But why no hyphen and no space? “What’s peculiar really is the joining together of the El and Baradei without a hyphen, because that’s just not common in transliteration,” confirmed one person I talked to. The other suggested the most purely accurate transliteration would be Muhammad Al-Barad’i; Wikipedia has Muḥammad al-Barādaʿī.

My best guess comes from one of my interlocutors: “Perhaps it’s how he himself chose to write it, and everyone simply picked it up from that.” But then, why did he choose to write it that way? Why the need to be distinctive? Can somebody please find this out for sure so that the armchair-psychologizing can begin?

Also, yes, we know he looks like Henry Waxman.





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