Castro on Emanuel

« previous post | next post »

Fidel Castro is evidently alive and well — and writing rambling, incoherent columns on political onomastics. As Julia Ioffe of the New Republic blog The Plank reports, Castro's latest editorial for Granma Internacional is a "deliciously confusing" excursus on White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and his name. Here are the opening lines in Spanish and English:

¡Qué apellido tan extraño! Parece español, fácil de pronunciar y no lo es. Nunca en mi vida conocí o leí el nombre de alumno o compatriota entre decenas de miles, que llevara ese nombre.
¿De dónde proviene?, pensé.

What a strange surname! It appears Spanish, easy to pronounce, but it’s not. Never in my life have I heard or read about any student or compatriot with that name, among tens of thousands.
Where does it come from? I wondered.

Castro ponders whether there is a connection to Immanuel Kant, and then moves on to consider a book by Germán Sánchez, Cuba's ambassador to Venezuela, entitled La transparencia de Enmanuel. He eventually gets back to Rahm, stating that "the growing problems of U.S. capitalist society" cannot be solved by "Obama, Emanuel, and all of the brilliant politicians and economists who have come together," even if they had assistance from the ghosts of Kant, Plato, Aristotle, and "John Kenneth Galbraight" [sic].

If Castro had checked out Rahm Emanuel's Wikipedia entry, he might not have been so mystified by the name:

The surname Emanuel (עמנואל), adopted by the family in honor of his father's brother Emanuel Auerbach, killed in Jerusalem during a skirmish with Arabs, means God is with us.

Wikipedia links to a 1997 New York Times profile of Emanuel and his brothers mentioning the story of Emanuel Auerbach's death in 1933 and the subsequent renaming of the family by Rahm's father Benjamin. (A Jerusalem Post article gives the year of death as 1938.) The Wikipedia entry for "Immanuel," meanwhile, expands on the Hebrew etymology:

Immanuel or Emmanuel or Imanu'el (Hebrew עִמָּנוּאֵל "God [is] with us" consists of two Hebrew words: אֵל (’El, meaning 'God') and עִמָּנוּ (ʻImmānū, meaning 'with us'); Standard Hebrew ʻImmanuʼel, Tiberian Hebrew ʻImmānûʼēl).

There are many historical figures named Emanuel/Emmanuel/Immanuel, and many more with the Spanish/Portuguese variant Manuel. Who knows why Castro finds the name so baffling, but at least it provides fodder for some fine stream-of-consciousness prose.


  1. Karen said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    Perhaps he's confused by its use as a surname?

  2. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    Castro presumably meant that it's unusual as a surname, not that it's an unusual name. Yet there are six Emanuels in the Wellington phone book. How many in Havana, I wonder?

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    Even if he's confused by its use a surname, why would he find it difficult to pronounce?

  4. Peter Howard said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    I took Castro to be meaning: "It appears Spanish, because it's easy to pronounce, but it’s not Spanish (even though it is easy to pronounce)." But I could easily be wrong.

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    Ah, fair enough. Still, he wonders where the name comes from ("¿De dónde proviene?, pensé"), which is pretty easy to determine.

  6. John Cowan said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    Benjamin Zimmer: I'm not sure if that question is tongue-in-cheek or not, but I think "but it's not" is elliptical for "but it's not Spanish", not "but it's not hard to pronounce".

  7. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    Conversely, it's the forename that bedevils Americans. Poor man suffers from the same "floating h" phenomenon that afflicts Gandhi and Genghis Khan. The only place I haven't seen the h show up is in initial position.

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    Fidel Castro is not the only recent author of a newspaper article who seems curiously unable to perform a web search. Consider the current flurry of stories about the Pakistani government's agreement to "accept a legal system compatible with Shariah law in the violent Swat region in return for peace" (quoted from Ismail Khan, "Pakistan Agrees to Islamic Law in Swat Region", NYT, 2/16/2009).

    I'm sure that the agreement must represent some sort of a change, but a few seconds of web searching determines that Article 227(1) of the Pakistani constitution says that "All existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and sunna … and no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to such injunctions." So whatever the change is, there seems to be some missing context in the stories.

  9. Bloix said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    I would think that anyone raised Catholic, as Castro presumably was, would know the name from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Matthew evokes the prophesy of Isaiah:

    "But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. (21) And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. (22) Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, (23) Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    Daniel: It seems to me that the h was inserted so that the name, רם ('high') in Hebrew, is pronounced [ram] and not [ræm].

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    You'll find, Mark, that compatibility with Shariah is accepted as a necessary part of the law in many Islamic countries.

    The only country that simply carries out Sharia, with no codified criminal law, is Saudi Arabia, and that is going to be changed very soon.

  12. Jorge said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    Of course Castro knows the name as a name, he finds it strange as a surname precisely because it is so familiar as a given name in Spanish.

    "It appears Spanish, easy to pronounce, but it’s not." And he is right: in English it is not pronounced the way the very familiar Spanish name "Emanuel" is pronounced. Besides the change in the vowels, the stress gets shifted. He is saying that it is deceptively easy to pronounce: as a Spanish speaker, you would think you know how it is pronounced, but you would be wrong.

  13. Lane said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    For me, it's delicious proof that when you're a dictator (or even a still-revered, recently retired dictator), nobody tells you when you're talking nonsense.

  14. Janice Huth Byer said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    As a fan of Rahm, I'm delighted to learn of his surname's proud origin. The fact that it's not a typical Jewish American name struck me, but neither is his first name, so I thought no more of it. Maybe that's why I find Castro's digressive musings rather endearing. At his age, it's understandable he's not mentally plugged into the Internet or able to stay "on message".

  15. ECL said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    Emmanuel is a Mexican singer, fairly popular especially in the 80's:

  16. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

    He does seem to just use it as a jumping off point for other things. It's definitely a stream-of-consciousness of his thoughts of who the guy is. Compare to…"Barak Hussein Obama. Such an interesting name, it sounds like Mortal Kombat. But then I stopped to think where it might have come from. I started to think about Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but then I realized those couldn't be further from the man currently in control of the US's executive branch." (of course Castro compares his two favorably, but I just use this as a more purely American example)

    It's important to note that the quoted section is the first paragraph and the first few words of the second paragraph. After all the careful coverage LL had checking out quotes and half quotes in the US political races, it seems like we should only extend the same courtesy to Castro.

  17. Alex B said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 4:45 am

    Surely even Castro must also have heard of the movie Emanuelle

  18. Jan Schreuder said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    I thought Castro's column rather innocent and easily intelligible. Is it an American's duty to comment negatively on any utterance by Fidel?

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 8:07 am

    In the UK, O come, O come Emmanuel is a very famous Christmas carol. I guess it's not in Cuba (or the US?).

  20. Lupe said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    When I read posts like this I wonder (again) why did I choose to become a linguist. I find the lack of humor and the profound arrogance of most linguist disturbing, not to mention how most of them can't grasp non explicit meaning, and when they do they deconstruct it until it totally looses itself in nonsensical academic blabber. The irony of Fidel's commentary is subtle still profound, it evokes the relevance of this Emmanuel for Latin Americans. Sorry, I am not going to parse it further. I am just glad that despite all my studies in linguistics I haven't completely depleted language of its flavor.
    By the way, by just skimming a good biography of Castro, one is convinced that this guy might be guilty of many things but ignorance.

  21. Greg Karber said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    Wow, Lupe.

    I am reminded of an internet law that states that any post criticizing someone else's grammar or punctuation will itself contain an error in grammar and punctuation.

    Perhaps we should add as a corollary that any post accusing someone of arrogance and a lack of humor should itself be both arrogant and humorless. Certainly, your post provides no counter-example.

  22. Eve Bodeux said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 1:32 am

    Do you really think Castro would check Wikipedia?! That is a strange image…

  23. aaron said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 3:34 am

    Daniel von Brighoff:


  24. Onno said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    Considering Rahm's forename, I am wondering if the Hebrew meaning "high" or "lofty" (quoting his Wikipedia entry) is in any way related to the meaning of the German word "Rahm" which is cream. (which is supposedly related to the Late Latin word: cramum).
    Consider one of Oxford's definition of cream:
    "The most excellent element or part; the best of its kind; the choice part; the quintessence."
    Unfortunately I don't know Hebrew to see if this is just coincidence…

  25. Jeff said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 2:38 am

    Re: the floating 'h': presumably his parents could have spelled it 'rum', but may have wanted to spare their child from being confused with the drink… (and, as was pointed out, didn't want him to get mixed up with the animal either)

  26. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    Onno: It's safe to say it's just a coincidence. Hebrew rahm is strictly Semitic, from the root rwm (also the root of Abraham, Arabic rahim, etc.). German rahm is strictly Germanic — the (Scottish) English cognate ream 'cream' has this etymology in the OED:

    Cognate with Middle Dutch roem, room, rōme (Dutch room), Middle Low German rōm, rōme, Old High German roum (Middle High German roum, German regional Raum, German Rahm), and also (with a different ablaut grade) Old Icelandic rjúmi, Norwegian rømme, Swedish regional römme, råm; further etymology unknown.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    the German word "Rahm" which is cream.

    Sour cream only! Not the sweet one, which is Sahne or Obers.

    (which is supposedly related to the Late Latin word: cramum).

    Well, there we get the initial h, except that German lost it some 800 years ago. Germanic sound shift: kr –> hr.

RSS feed for comments on this post