04:50 PM EDT May 28
To main page



By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

Iraq's leader has been called plenty of names over the years: evil liar, ruthless dictator, global menace, the Butcher of Baghdad, His Excellency, President for Life, Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, and the Anointed One.

But for those who prefer real names to slurs or lofty titles, what's the best approach?

Saddam Hussein is fine the first time he's mentioned in a news story. But what do you write after that? Saddam? Hussein? Both? If you pick one over the other, is there a reason?

The CBC has received phone calls from some people who think that the name "Saddam" on its own is inappropriate. "Why do you say, 'Bush doesn't like Saddam'?" one person asked our audience relations department. "Don't treat Saddam Hussein with this lack of respect."

We've also got e-mail about our use of "Saddam." Here's a recent query:

I was wondering why CBC often refers to President Saddam Hussein as "Saddam Hussein" and more commonly as "Saddam" while President George W. Bush is often referred to as "President Bush" or as "Bush" but never as "George."

Is there a reason they are referred to differently?

Kind regards,

E. Damián Londynski Di Caro

Some media organizations do call Saddam Hussein Hussein. Many, however, prefer Saddam. There's no consensus on how to handle his name, but there are some explanations for the inconsistency.


Some people use "Saddam" because they assume it's his "family" name. They think it's akin to the Chinese practice of putting one's genealogy first – for instance, Deng Xiaoping becomes "Deng" in second and subsequent references.

But in Arabic, the last name in the sequence is generally chosen to identify someone's heritage. So Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri is known as "Sabri," and the country's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is referred to as "Aziz."

Following this convention, then, "Hussein" would appear to stand out as the obvious choice, and a few large papers have embraced it, including the Globe and Mail, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal.

It's also the path taken by some encyclopedias, including Britannica and Columbia.

But there's more to it than that. Which leads us to why many of the western world's biggest news organizations have chosen "Saddam" instead, including the Associated Press, Reuters, and the BBC. In this country, most media outlets appear to have adopted the same approach, including the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and the CBC.


Hussein is not Saddam's family name. It's actually his father's given name. This is a common Arabic tradition, which is why terms like "son of" (ibn or bin, depending on the country) and "father of" (abu) are sometimes part of a person's identification.

His full name is something close to Saddam Hussein al-Majid al-Tikriti, depending on the Middle Eastern authorities you consult. Taken apart, it really means that he is "Saddam, son of Hussein al-Majid, part of the al-Tikriti tribe."

To complicate matters, the closest term to what westerners would consider a "family" name is not actually represented here. Technically, it would be "al-Khatab," which is the designation of his clan, whose members belong to the larger al-Tikriti tribe. Tikriti, by the way, represents a geographical location – the town of Tikrit along the Tigris River about 160 kilometres north of Baghdad, not far from the village where Saddam was born.

It should be pointed out that there are often many spellings of all these words, since they are English transliterations of Arabic. For instance, Hussein is also commonly written as Husayn – a variation noted by many authorities, including the 2002 Britannica, and preferred by some publications like the Middle East Quarterly. Canada's Foreign Affairs Department uses both versions on its Web site.


Why don't people skip his first name and his father's first name and move on to something with deeper roots in the past?

When Iraq's Baath Socialist Party first came to power in 1968, with Saddam Hussein as vice-president, it outlawed the use of tribal names. Citizens were told that they owed their loyalty to the state and its president instead of to a local tribe and its chief. Some believe there was another reason for the ban. As Neil MacFarquhar pointed out in a Jan. 5, 2003, article in the New York Times, critics feel the policy was actually designed to disguise the large number of Saddam's clan in the government.

Regardless of the reason, the man who would eventually take over his country – and set about to build what would become one of the world's largest armies by the late 1980s – was suddenly known simply as Saddam Hussein.


When the Persian Gulf War began in January 1991, CBC foreign correspondent Patrick Brown wanted to gauge how people felt about their leader as bombs were being dropped on their country. Virtually no journalists were left in Baghdad. He got a translator in Amman to monitor Iraqi radio signals. "Saddam," the Jordanian man concluded, "is considered a hero."

This brings us to the first, and primary, reason many newsrooms use "Saddam" – it's how he's known throughout Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

With clan and tribal terms eliminated, a name had to be picked from the two remaining choices (Saddam or Hussein), and Iraq's ruler endorsed the first. Virtually everyone in the region knows him by this name, not by "Hussein," and he encourages its use – cultivating a sort of Grand Uncle persona to go with some of his other roles, including Direct Descendant of the Prophet.

The BBC, for instance, noted that before Saddam's last "election" victory in October 2002 – there were no other candidates – telephone dial tones were replaced in many areas with the campaign slogan "Naam, naam, Saddam" (Yes, yes, Saddam), followed by a recorded message: "Saddam is the pride of my country."

Some journalists have reported that many Iraqis refer to their leader as "Mr. President" or "His Excellency" in the presence of foreigners. But others have found that ordinary people frequently use his first name, Saddam – "either with affection or derision," as Globe and Mail writers Stephanie Nolen and Timothy Appleby put it in a profile last fall. Their newspaper, as mentioned, calls him "Mr. Hussein" instead.


The second reason many media outlets use "Saddam" is habit, based on a practice that some argue was initially useful.

Years ago western journalists discovered that by adopting the local Iraqi custom of using the leader's first name they could readily distinguish him from another well known "Hussein" in the area – the king of Jordan. What initially began as a happy convenience became entrenched.

Not everyone cared about the Hussein headache. Even though King Hussein was alive during the 1991 Gulf War, some newsrooms steadfastly avoided using "Saddam" because it was his given name. Canada's two biggest newspapers illustrate this point:

On Wednesday, Jan. 16, 1991, the Globe and Mail's top headline was about a final appeal by the UN secretary general: "Perez de Cuellar gives Hussein guarantee against attack if he withdraws immediately." At the bottom of the front-page, a second headline read: "Hussein's biggest weapon could be American people." The next day, the Toronto Star ran the banner headline "IT'S WAR" and then below it wrote "Saddam spotted at Baghdad TV centre."

Both papers have held on to their preferences during the past decade. Although the Globe now puts "Saddam" in the odd headline – for instance, "Saddam's bark and bite" across page F1 of the Nov. 16, 2002, edition – it continues to use "Mr. Hussein" in the body of all news stories. The honorific "Mr." before Hussein, by the way, appears in a few other publications (such as the New York Times) that share a relatively formal style and tone of writing.

At least one prominent writer at the Times has broken ranks at his paper and uses "Saddam." William Safire originally started doing it to distinguish one Hussein from another, but even after the death of Jordan's king in 1999 he decided to stick with what had become familiar. In one of his recent columns on language, Safire wryly notes a measure of discomfort with his choice:

The Times continues to indulge me, as well as my fellow columnists, in this first-name familiarity, while our editors properly hold other writers to our stylebook's discipline except in quotations and letters.

It troubles me to learn from the Associated Press that the dictator prefers my usage, but at this stage I refuse to change it to 'Hussein.' Not only is there a certain sassiness bordering on profound disrespect in using the first name only, but 'Saddam' is also the moniker readers have come to know and despise him by.

William Safire
New York Times
Dec. 22, 2002


Senior editors at news outfits in North America, Europe and elsewhere have received occasional criticism during the past decade for the use of "Saddam." At one point last fall, AP issued an explanation for its choice – briefly noting that "Hussein" is the first name of the man's father, not a family name, and that virtually everyone in Iraq knows him as "Saddam" and not "Hussein."

In one response to readers a few months ago, a British newspaper rejected a suggestion that it start using "Hussein." The Observer likened the proposal to calling George W. Bush "Mr. W." Since Hussein was the first name of Saddam's father, however, it would be more like calling George W. Bush "George."

In Canada, a better analogy might be referring to the late novelist W.O. Mitchell as "O" because it stood for Ormond, his dad's first name. People called W.O. "Bill" (short for William), and if "Mitchell" were suddenly stripped from the picture the way Saddam Hussein's clan and tribal names were, the logical choice would not necessarily be to turn to the "O" simply because it's last in the sequence.

Some westerners don't like the feeling that they're on a first name basis with Iraq's president, but others find it more logical than pretending to be on a first name basis with his dead father, Hussein – especially since "Saddam" is clearly the preference in Iraq and neighbouring countries. It's used by English and Arabic newspapers in that part of the world. Outside the region, there have been concerns raised by the apparent informality of it, but Middle East scholars point out that using the word "Saddam" is not belittling or offensive.


With Washington and Baghdad locked in another showdown, it's hard to ignore the etymology of "Saddam" – which is generally translated as either "one who confronts" or "one who clashes." Beyond deciding whether to use it, broadcasters must be careful about how to pronounce it.

Arab speakers say the accent should be on the second syllable (Sa-DAM) and not on the first (SAD-am). Some also point out that "dam" shouldn't sound like "damn" but rather like "alm" – which, as William Safire notes, means that what we stress should be pretty close to "bomb."

There is also a theory among critics that the White House has gone out of its way to mispronounce the name. They complain that one version, "SOD-um," is intended to conjure up the biblical city of ill fame. They also claim that another version, "SAD-um," is part of a conspiracy to twist the meaning in Arabic. "SAD-um" was the popular choice of George W. Bush's father during the early 1990s. Putting the accent on the first syllable, scholars argue, turns "one who confronts" into "barefoot beggar."

After reviewing the evidence, Susan Butler, the publisher of Australia's Macquarie Dictionary, made the following observation: "Fascinating as it is, I wonder if the first President Bush's Arabic was up to it."


Last November, Canada's largest private television network posted a story on its Web site about the debate over Saddam versus Hussein.

CTV said its policy is to use "Hussein." (Someone there may want to remind the anchors and reporters, since the term "Saddam" on its own crops up from time to time in the nightly newscasts.) The article then added the very strange claim: "CBC seems to work around the problem by referring to him only as 'Saddam Hussein' in their broadcasts."

CBC Radio, CBC TV, CBC Newsworld and CBC.ca have used "Saddam" for years. Although his full name is sometimes repeated within stories, "Saddam" alone is common as a second reference.

When U.S. President George W. Bush's father launched an air strike against Baghdad in 1991, for instance, CBC TV correspondent Terry Milewski referred to the Iraqi leader as "Saddam" midway through his original report from Washington. Transcripts show that "Saddam" has been preferred to "Hussein" since then. CBC Radio's policy is also to use "Saddam." CBC News Online does as well.

Always writing or saying both "Saddam" and "Hussein" may seem like a good solution at first, but peppering a story with a person's full name can change its tone – making the report awkward or overly formal, especially if it's a broadcast script. And in a paper or on the Web, the words "Saddam Hussein" together needlessly chew up valuable space in headlines.

It should be noted, however, that the Wall Street Journal did adopt this approach for a while. It printed "Saddam Hussein" in every reference to the man until the king of Jordan's death, when it switched to "Mr. Hussein" or "President Hussein."

"Saddam Hussein has presented problems in more ways than one," says Paul R. Martin, author of the paper's style manual. Since Hussein is a very common Arab name, and since he's "widely referred to as Saddam," Martin adds: "Repeating the full name remains an alternative."

Many newsrooms, however, continue to prefer one name in second and subsequent references. AP, CP, Reuters, BBC, CBC and others have picked "Saddam." Given the influence of the media, it's not surprising that a lot of the people who are quoted – from those on the street to officials with the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Britain – often say it now as well.

This column was first posted in February 2003 as part of the CBC News feature Ultimatum Iraq

top | other articles | letters