Chalaque: British code name for Obama ... insult or compliment?


Police patrol the front of Buckingham Palace where President Obama is staying overnight. (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

“The Insult Behind Obama’s U.K. Codename,” headlines read. “Scotland Yard Snickers at the Chalaque in Chief,” says another.

“It's a derogatory term for someone crafty, cheeky, cunning and a bit too clever for their own damn good,” the Guardian writes.

The word is the Portuguese word for Cherokee. So what’s so cheeky about that? Well, the papers are not referring to the Portuguese word. It may be a Punjbai word, usually transliterated as “Chalak,” which means “skilful; knowing; crafty; sly.”

Asra Nomani writes in the Daily Beast:

Think... Bernie Madoff, for swindling foundations and the elderly out of millions: a definite chalak. Osama bin Laden for hiding out in the Pakistan military garrison town of Abbottabad, miles from the nation’s capital? Definitely, 100 percent chalak, though most of his sympathizers wouldn’t insult even bin Laden by calling him a chalak. Rather, they’d say the Navy SEALs were real chalak for keeping Operation Geronimo a secret from the Pakistanis.

Nomani’s mother, an Urdu-speaking resident of Lucknow, India, asserts its definitely an insult.

However, the languages of South Asia change in degrees according to location. What is one word in the north, may be entirely different in the south. What’s insulting to one person, may be a compliment to another. I took the question to my Facebook wall, to poll friends in India. Here were just a sampling of the responses:

“Mostly is not. Can even be a compliment. It means clever/smart, but depending on the tone can mean manipulative.”

“Not an insult. Means shrewd.”

“I think it’s a compliment, and someone in the Yard has a sense of humor.”

It’s not just the languages of South Asia that leave mixed messages. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Secret Service dubbed Obama “Renegade.” While some may admire the rebellious, unconventional definition of the term, it also has another meaning. According to Dictionary.com, that’s a person “who deserts and betrays an organization, country, or set of principles.” Not exactly an attribute you’d want in the leader of a country.

Code names were once needed when communication relied on unsecured radio and telegraph lines. Now, it’s more of a time-honored tradition.

To confuse matters even more, I’ll leave you with this song, called “Chalak, Chalak.” It has nothing to do with shrewd or crafty mean. Chalak in this sense refers to the sound of glasses clinking in a toast. Maybe that’s what the Scotland Yard meant? Regardless, it’s a good song:

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