Friday, August 6, 2010

Attaq of a Whaq Moniqer

Shaquille O'Neal announced yesterday that he is signing with the Boston Celtics for 2010-11. A fine decision for both parties; few other teams wanted O'Neal, and the Celtics can use his burly services with Kendrick Perkins injured until January. I was intrigued yesterday by another thought: where did Shaquille's name come from?

I have always uncuriously assumed that "Shaquille" is a bad, or francified, transliteration of a putative Arabic name "Shaqiil / Shaqeel" (ثقيل). However, my unscientific research suggests that there is no such Arabic male name; "Shakiil / Shakeel" (شكيل) appears on a list of baby names, but Shaqiil / Shaqeel is nowhere to be found. Furthermore, a google search for Shakiil, Shakeel, or Shakil yields nearly 5,000,000 combined hits, while a google search for Shaqiil, Shaqeel, or Shaqil (excluding "Shaquille" to avoid references to the Big Aristotle himself) yields only about 160,000 combined hits.

It seems that Shaquille O'Neal's parents, devout Muslims by most accounts, were being too clever by half in their efforts to give their son an Arabic name. Had they done a bit more investigating, they would have learned that "q" and "k" are two distinct sounds in Arabic, and the former cannot be thrown into a word or name to spice it up.

Of course, I am not a native Arabic speaker, so who am I to question their authenticity? Like any parent, they can select any collection of phonemes that they desire to name their child. (Does "LeBron" have any objective referent?) Still, it was interesting to recognize that Shaquille O'Neal's name is based on an orthographic flourish.

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