Hijab, hajib, whatever

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President Obama's speech at Cairo University today included this important passage:

[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.

Unfortunately, what he actually said (about 11 minutes into the speech) was a bit different.

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Instead of "wear the hijab", he said "wear the hajib". A "hijab" is a head scarf, while a "hajib" was a sort of vizier or chamberlain in Muslim Spain and Egypt.

This was a normal and understandable sort of speech error. I don't expect much reaction, or even commentary — nor should such errors be a focus of political discussion, in my opinion. But can you imagine the reaction if the speaker had been the previous president?


  1. Jonathan said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    "President Bush mocks Islam through misuse of critical word. Muslim world in horror."

  2. Outis said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    Yes, we listen to different speakers very differently. Blame it on the media image. But personally, I think there's something about Obama, at least the way he speaks, that make you want to listen to what he wants to say rather than what he's actually saying; whereas Bush usually made you listen to what he was actually saying rather than what it all really meant.

  3. Marco Neves said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    In this particular case, I don't think Bush-bashing would be particularly strong. Not everyone will notice the difference between both words.

  4. Craig Buchek said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    I can't believe that a Muslim like Barack Obama would make such a mistake. It must have been a trick to convince us that he's not really a Muslim. (Tongue firmly in cheek!)

  5. Thomas Westgard said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    I think there's a very clear and articulable difference between these two speakers that explains their different treatment on the subject. Both Obama and Bush showed ignorance of the Arabic language, but people will forgive ignorance of a language much more readily than they will forgive ignorance of a culture, history, or religion.

    When you look at this mistake by Obama and hear clearly that he used the wrong word, I think the obvious thing for a listener to do is scale outward and think more broadly what's being said and whether it's respectful. Obama is obviously saying that the cultural mores of Muslim girls & women should be protected. The hijab issue is a sensitive one because France, for example, has aggressively opposed it.

    I think, for example, of Bush's use of the word "crusade" in explaining why it was good that we went into Iraq. The use of that word couldn't come from a perspective that respects Islam's right to exist. Mainstream historians in the Middle East and in the United States view the Crusades as a destructive bloodletting. The only perspective that views the crusades as a good thing that ought to be repeated is the fundamentalist Christian right that wants to convert all Muslims to Christianity. More about that:

    It was a mistake to use the word "crusade," but Bush's use of the wrong word accurately conveyed his own religious background. That background is hostile to Islam's continued existence. Obama's use of "hajib," in context, can't be viewed as hostile and is clearly supportive. So the differing reactions come because different things were said.

  6. rpsms said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    On basic level, people believe in Obama's intellectual capabilities and therefore let minor mistakes pass.

    With Bush, people had doubts.

  7. Faldone said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    The root of hijab is hgb, 'to cover'. Is there any connection with hajib?

    [(myl) I wondered about that myself. Some LL readers may be able to enlighten us — and I'll ask some friends who are likely to know, and report back.]

  8. Terry Hunt said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    While I would be very much to the rear of any queue to defend George W Bush (or, for that matter, Christianity, being a Wiccan), I think Thomas Westgar overstates his case somewhat and points to genocidal hostility where there may well only have been ignorance and ineptitude.

    On the one hand, 'Crusades' were Pope-sanctioned military campaigns to notionally defend 'Christendom' from any perceived threat. Many official Crusades were directed against Christian (so-called) heretics, such as the Albigensians: even the 1066 invasion of England by the Normans was (I believe) officially a crusade. It's understandable that the heirs of a particular target of some Crusades, such as the Islamic World, might think of those particular campaigns as The Crusades, and they are indeed those that spring most readily to the average Western lay mind, but the majority of Crusades were not directed against Muslims at all.

    On the other hand, conflicts have multiple viewpoints, and while Islam's perception of the Crusades directed at some of its territories may have been of unprovoked attacks on peaceful multicultural societies, that of Christendom was (at least officially) that they were liberation campaigns to free previously Christian lands from repressive anti-Christian regimes imposed by violent conquest. I daresay neither characterisation was particularly accurate.

    On the gripping hand, terms like "war" and "crusade" have long since passed into the territory of political metaphor, in which their original and literal meanings are all too easily forgotten. It is now being admitted in some quarters that phrases like "War on Drugs" and even "War on Terror" tend to channel establishment thinking towards overly narrow, unnecessarily militaristic responses. My interpretation of Bush's notorious use of the term "Crusade" was not that he actually intended any historically loaded anti-Islamic bias, but that he had merely committed yet another verbal gaffe by employing a term whose unfortunate implications he had overlooked or was quite possibly unaware of. Of course, my own perceptions of the affair were blurred by several thousand miles of distance.

  9. Faldone said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    [(myl) I wondered about that myself. Some LL readers may be able to enlighten us — and I'll ask some friends who are likely to know, and report back.]

    My first thought was that it has a different h. The one in the AHD has a dot under it.

  10. dmv said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    At least 1/4 of us liberals would have fallen over in shock that President Bush tried to use the Arabic term for it.

    Did you notice the applause when President Obama mentioned Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them?

    Cultural and religious sensitivities are meaningful. Diplomacy is heavy on rhetoric. Words matter, even if they don't have much substance.

    Can you imagine the reaction if President Bush had said that Israel must abide by its commitments and stop settlement expansion? Something involving bats and craziness comes to mind…

  11. dr pepper said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    On the flipside, some moslems in the US have learned that no amount of explanation can overcome a very negative reaction to the word "jihad".

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    Wait a minute. The reference to the toleration of hijab is supposed to subtly differentiate the U.S. from France and imply our comparative superiority? I thought France-bashing was the rhetorical specialty of those who supported the previous administration and that the new administraition was by contrast going to be all sophisticated and cosmopolitan (and thus Francophilic). Decoding the subtext of speeches like this must be more complicated than I'd supposed.

    As to the mispronunciation, don't we have the admittedly-preposterous-sounding coinage "Women of Cover" (used at least on occasion by the prior President) to avoid just this hazard? You'd just need to let whoever was translating the speech into Arabic know in advance what it referred to.

  13. Jim Roberts said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    Also, I think it's important to address the issue of speech length – in fifty minutes he made one known transposition error. That's pretty remarkable, really. I don't recall Bush giving any speeches of that length.

  14. dmv said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    Decoding the subtext of speeches like this must be more complicated than I'd supposed.

    Actually, that was the first thing that jumped out at me as soon as he said it: France.

    But then again, one of my best friends is French, and we've fought about what "freedom of religion" means several times, particularly on the hijab issue. Nevertheless, I think he was subtly criticizing Europe, which is probably a positive thing to do, at least insofar as racism and discrimination are major issues for European countries right now.

  15. Grace said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    HA! Oh, good, I thought I was the only one who heard that. Ah, well. In an hour-long speech, confusing the word "official" for "headscarf" is relatively tame.

    Made me laugh hearing it, though. Women are fighting for the right to wear hajibs in America? How alarming!

    "Did you notice the applause when President Obama mentioned Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them?"

    This is the far more important point for me. As soon as he said Mohammed's name, I was wondering if he'd go the distance… and then he did. Woot!

  16. Tal Linzen said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    My dictionary lists both حاجب hajib and حجاب hijab as derived from the same root حجب hjb, whose core meaning is "cover", but when followed by the preposition عن 'an "from" can mean "separate, prevent entrance from". Hence hajib "gatekeeper" (and, incidentally, "eyebrow") and hijab "scarf".

  17. Thomas Westgard said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    My reference to France is how that nation's behavior is seen through Muslim eyes. How France is seen through American eyes is an interesting topic for us Americans (and British), but not one that the intended audience of Obama's speech will be thinking about much.

  18. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    Also, I think it's important to address the issue of speech length – in fifty minutes he made one known transposition error.

    "Known" to whom? He made one known error which was also reported in the media, doubtless because it occurred in a culturally-significant word. I'd be astounded if he–or practically anyone–spoke for 50 minutes and made not one single other transposition error. It would be difficult to tell from published transcripts because editors routinely correct slips of the tongue (and edit out hesitation sounds and false starts, rewrite confusing passages, etc.) for public consumption.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    The transcript contains at least one English lexical slip not silently corrected "We see no military — we seek no military bases there." (Maybe more; I wasn't specifically looking but that caught my eye.) On the bright side, he got the translation of e pluribus unum correct, which puts him ahead of Al Gore.

    I'm genuinely confused by the semantics/pragmatics of "peace be upon him/them" when used by a non-Muslim in reference to Mohammed. Is it just politeness to a Muslim host, or as non-committal as "God bless (no harm in blessing) the Pretender," or should it rather be understood to imply a particular commitment by the speaker to a particular and contested view of Mohammed's status and the truth-claims of Islam? If the President were making a speech in Portugal, for example, I would be happier if, while speaking in his official capacity, he avoided using turns of phrase that might seem to commit him to the view that the Virgin Mary did in fact speak to the shepherd kids at Fatima. But I just don't know if this is parallel.

  20. John O'Toole said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    Mr. Brewer, shhhhhhhhhh! Get on board already. Linguistically, we're reducing the presence of religion in politics now by talking up religion abroad, don't you see.

  21. J said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    It sounded like he knew he mispronounced – long silence there after the word.

  22. bulbul said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    My dictionary lists both حاجب hajib and حجاب hijab
    Except what Obama said sounded more like حجيب = hajeeb (first vowel short, second long, the pattern being that of an adjective), not حاجب = haajib (first long, second short, morphologically a present particple). Well, actually, he stressed the second syllable, I'm not really sure if it was in fact long.

    I'm genuinely confused by the semantics/pragmatics of "peace be upon him/them" when used by a non-Muslim in reference to Mohammed
    Miloš Mendel, an eminent Czech Arabist, describes how when speaking with his Muslim friends in Arabic, they wouldn't let him say the PBUH blessing, feeling that this is something only a Muslim should say. So every time he said Muhammad's name, he would pause and let them add صلى الله عليه وسلم.

  23. Leo Petr said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    In an earlier speech, Obama said that combatting the scourge of "privacy" was a top priority, meaning "piracy". Understandable error, as his the former had hitherto been a much likelier noun in his speeches. However, this is certainly not something one would want to hear coming from Bush's lips.

  24. Nathan Myers said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    I had been under the impression that "hijab" referred not to an article of clothing, but a style of clothing. In other words, you might wear hijab, or dress hijab, but not wear a hijab. There's an actual word for the head scarf, right? I realize that such a distinction is too fine for the tiny minds of American journalists, and for the American populace, but it seems like it should not be beyond the skills even of an American presidential speech editor.

    Or maybe I'm mistaken, or archaic? Or the distinction is commonly neglected wherever Arabic is not the first language, including perhaps Egypt?

  25. Uri Horesh said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    all the h.j.b. (or h.g.b. in Egypt) words mentioned above are indeed related and are of the root that has the "h with the dot" or ح, which is a voiceless pharyngeal fricative. Arabs often use the numeral 7 to transliterate it online, and I'll do the same henceforth. My last name in more traditional Hebrew would have the same initial consonant (I, like most Israelis, pronounce it as a velar or uvular fricative: [x] or [χ].

    In Obama's case, it was clearly a slip of the tongue of sorts, and I wouldn't go into the trouble of speculating whether he meant to say 7aji:b or 7a:jib. I have no reason to assume he meant anything but 7ija:b 'veil.' Anything else would amount to a paranoid conspiracy theory.

    What I did find interesting was that Obama, like many other non-Arabs, tend to stress the final syllables in Arabic (and many other non-English) words and names. We often hear the name Khalid pronounced [kalí:d] – in Arabic it's [xá:lid]. Syrian President Assad's name is frequently pronounced [asá:d] rather than [ásad], including by Israeli President Peres, whose own name ([péres] in Hebrew) is typically pronounced [perés] by both Americans and Arabs.

    Obama called the centuries-old Islamic university in Cairo that co-hosted him [al-azhár] rather than [al-'azhar]. I think therefore, that something like 7ajib would almost invariably be pronounced by him with final stress, which is another mooting factor in the 7a:jib/7aji:b debate above (Arabic long vowels are always stressed if they "compete" with a short vowel in the same phonological word).

  26. bulbul said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 6:59 pm


    technically, you're right. ḥiǧāb refers to a general idea of morality, chastity, modest and so forth. The Quran (24:31) calls the head-scarf ḵimār. As far as I know, the term ḥiǧāb is used on colloquial Arabic (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) to mean both the modest dress as well as the head-scarf. In any case, such a semantic shift is not unusual.

  27. Andrew said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    This transposition has been around for a while. The Onion back in 2001 carried a pretty good satire on excesses of clothing coverage in Afghanistan, including this paragraph:

    "It is an important part of both my religion and my culture to observe full hajib," said Asaad, who has worn traditional garb since she was 13. "I keep my body covered when in the presence of men. In the mosque, I am careful to keep my eyes lowered at all times. But it would be nice to wear something different once in a while, like a shoe with an attractive but respectful heel."


  28. Stephen Jones said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

    The root of hijab is hgb, 'to cover'. Is there any connection with hajib?
    Wehr insists they 're the same root. The hajib is the gatekeeper or doorman, the person who protects what hides or covers, and thus the chamberlain.

  29. bkr said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 12:07 am

    I'm surprised he messed this up, considering his lovely qaf in Qur'an — he was clearly coached heavily on pronunciation.

  30. marie-lucie said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 12:36 am

    About the foulard islamique (Muslim scarf) in France:

    I don't mean to take sides as I haven't lived there for a long time, but the scarf is not the only religious accessory banned from schools (not from everywhere): it was explained to me by members of my family in the teaching profession that wearing the scarf is not just a question of a clothing accessory: in the town where the problem began some years ago, fathers and grandfathers of scarf-wearing girls (who were by no means the majority among Muslim girls) would come to the school demanding that their daughters be excused from gym, science, and sometimes other subjects deemed unsuitable for them (obviously these are not the highly educated Muslim immigrants who come to the West hoping for higher education for their daughters). On the other hand, some girls who would have preferred not to wear the scarf had to because if their brothers and other male family members saw them without it, there would be severe repercussions for them. In some schools the situation between different Muslim traditions or observances as well as between Muslims and others became untenable and that was what led to decisions first by school principals, then by the ministry of education, to ban the display of religious accessories of any kind in public schools.

    After 9-11 two French journalists were kidnapped in the Middle East as a protest against this ban, but the result was the opposite: most French Muslims did not want to appear to be associated with terrorists by demonstrating against the ban.

  31. Graeme said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 4:21 am

    I've always found it interesting that people insist on referring to 'THE hijab'. It's a weird alienating device.

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    I'm not sure why Graeme finds the definite article weird and alienating (leaving aside the empirical question of how often it's actually used in this context and whether people are "insisting" or just, you know, using it). Compare the Irish nationalist song "The Wearing of the Green" or a sentence like "After Culloden, the wearing of the kilt was prohibited." Are those uses of the definite article weird or alienating? Maybe they function to indicate that the wardrobe item(s) in question function as signals of group identity or political or quasi-political affiliation. But surely that is a salient feature of a/the/0 hijab in many contexts in which one might have occasion to use the word in English.

    [(myl) Similarly, "wearing the top hat", "wearing the toga", "wearing the rosary", "wearing the sword", etc. ]

  33. Thomas Westgard said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    The last two comments are particularly interesting to me. Using the definite article "wearing the hijab" seems to indicate that it's a serious statement of identity, whereas the indefinite article "wearing a hijab" sounds more like just what you happened to put on this morning.

    She's an old-fashioned nun. She wears the habit.
    It's always a fun party. I wear a habit.

  34. Jonathan Lundell said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    Back to the original question, "But can you imagine the reaction if the speaker had been the previous president?"

    I'd ask, rather, "Can you imagine the reaction if the previous president had delivered that speech?"

  35. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    If we are going to take "hijab" into English as a loanword, it may end up with a semantic range different than it has in Arabic (which apparently itself may vary regionally) and thus could end up meaning in English a) the overall state/condition/result of being dressed in a fashion compliant with a specific Islamic view of female modesty/propriety generally or headcovering specifically and/or either b1) a specific type/style of clothing such as a headscarf customarily used to achieve a or b2) any article of clothing that is being used to achieve a but only in the context of such use. Whether it might be appropriate to use the definite article and what additional semantic implications it might have may depend on what the range of meanings for the noun itself end up being. For an example of b2, consider that a certain stratum of affluent/Westernized/fashion-conscious women in Iran are said to achieve compliance with local law by going out in public wearing e.g. a Burberry raincoat with their hair covered by an Hermes scarf. So "hijab" (or Farsi equivalent, if they don't use the Arabic loanword?) might apply to the Hermes scarf as thus deployed but would perhaps not be applied to it in other contexts.

  36. bulbul said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    So "hijab" (or Farsi equivalent, if they don't use the Arabic loanword?)
    People often think that chador = hijab = headscarf, but chador is actually quite longer than a scarf, more like a coat or cloak. Rosari (روسري) is what the Hermes scarf covering a woman's head and neck would be called.

  37. John Cowan said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

    The Arabic chapter in Comrie's anthology The Major Languages of the World says that Modern Standard Arabic doesn't have phonemic stress, and mentions the word /katabata/ as an example that is stressed on each of its four syllables in various colloquials; this is part of a discussion of MSA as an underspecified dialect ("follow these rules, then do the rest the way your colloquial does"). Unfortunately, Google Books is only giving me a snippet view, so I can't get a proper quotation.

  38. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 5:21 am

    When I was listening to the speech, I thought Obama mispronounced every single foreign word in that speech, regardless of language. On "as-salamu alaikum," Wikipedia says, 'English speakers usually pronounce the term as [ʌsəˈlaːmə wəˈleɪkum] which may be considered amusing by native Arabic speakers.', and that more or less matches how I heard his pronunciation, although I am neither a phonologist nor a speaker of Arabic. You can find lots of people making fun of his pronunciation of "el-Azhar" on the web (Hossam El-Hamalawy links to some in his blog), I didn't hear the qaf or the glottal stop in "qur'an", but of course that's an English loanword from Arabic anyway. And if we include "hajib", I think he mispronounced every Arabic word in the speech.

    Anyway, it's maybe not surprising he would mispronounce Arabic words; even the underspecified constraints John Cowan remarks on in MSA include a lot of phonemes that aren't phonemic in English, or probably in any language Obama speaks. But what was more surprising was that he pronounced "Reich" as [raɪʃ] rather than [raɪx], put the accent on the wrong syllable in "Córdoba", and pronounced "E" in "E Pluribus Unum" as [i] rather than [e], [ε], or [ə], any of which would have been at least a plausible pronunciation for the letter in Latin under some circumstances, unlike what he did say.

    However, it turned out I was wrong. He did pronounce one foreign word correctly, and it was one I thought he'd gotten wrong: "Andalucía".

    With regard to "peace be upon them" and the other shibboleth, "revealed" (describing the origin of Islam), along with the I don't think these really mean that Obama believes that Mohammed was a divinely-inspired prophet who was merely a conduit for al-Qur'an as revealed through Jibreel; but the lip service he gave to that doctrine in this speech suggests strongly that his stated Christianity is more a matter of convenience and social identity than any kind of sincere acceptance of traditional Christian ontology and epistemology. I suspect that in his heart of hearts he is an agnostic.

    I *was* rather struck by his reference to "*the* three great religions", by which he meant Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; it seems like with this shibboleth, he is rather firmly aligning himself with the governments of Egypt and Iran in their discrimination against, say, Bahá'ís and Zoroastrians, and perhaps burning some bridges with Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Rastafarians, and Jains as well. In a sense the meaningful parts of the speech were the ones like these, where he defined his position by giving up some future options. There weren't very many.

  39. Outis said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 8:14 am


    That's a rather extremist interpretation of it. While "hijab" was clearly a mistake, it is simply too much to expect anyone to pronounce every word "correctly". You would never deride a non-English-speaking politician for pronouncing English words badly. Obama isn't a phonologist, it's the effort that counts. I rarely hear any non-muslim politicians in the US, UK or Europe to even attempt at a non-assimilated pronunciation of Arabic words.

    Obama is a christian. By definition he doesn't believe that Mohammed to be a true divinely-inspired prophet. Of course he's just paying lip service. But what's wrong with that? Observing customary respect is the least he can do as a world leader. Are you suggesting that only muslims can show respect to Islam?

    Anyway, I would tend to agree that Obama is agnostic at heart. But that is irrelevant. Should he be evaluated for his faith and religious practice? He's a secular politician, not a priest.

    And lastly, saying "THE three great religions"does not imply that there are ONLY great religions. Just as if he said "the three religions", it wouldn't mean that there are only three religions in the world; you're just over interpreting. In any case, these these three religions are the only ones relevant here, it'd make a terribly long speech if he tries to include all the religions under the sky.

  40. Aaron Davies said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 1:32 am

    Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Rastafarians, and Jains

    "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belog…."Seriously, what are the Rastas doing in that list? The other four are sub-continent religions with some connection to the Dharmic tradition, and thus make a nice set, but Rastafari has nothing in common with them that I can see.

  41. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 7:08 am

    @Aaron Davies: the full list was "Bahá'ís, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Rastafarians, and Jains", and it was a list of groups with a plausible claim to being among "the N great religions".

    @Outis: if he's an agnostic at heart, then he's not a Christian or a Muslim; that was my point. I was certainly not suggesting that only Muslims can show respect to Islam.

    Are you suggesting that "the three great religions" could be interpreted like "the three wise men", "the Three Stooges", or "the four noble truths" as a sort of named group? I was going to assert that in most contexts "the [number] [adjective] [noun]", where [number] modifies [noun] rather than [adjective], implies that there are a number of [noun]s being considered, and only [number] of them are [adjective]. If in an article about "The three best Linux Media Centers" you discovered that actually there was a fourth that was better than any of the three in the opinion of the author, you would feel the title was inaccurate, no? However, I found a lot of counterexamples, and I'm not sure how to analyze them. Consider:

    "The three kinds of platforms you meet on the Internet" is indeed intended to provide an exhaustive analysis of the kinds of platforms on the internet.

    "The three layers of the web" — doesn't this imply that the article is about all three of the layers of the web, not merely, say, three out of seven?

    Similarly "the four stages of burnout", "the four levels of PDF accessibility", "the two ways of sizing absolute elements in CSS", "the two souls of socialism", "the two fundamental skills of web writing".

    Counterexamples: "the two cultures", "the two creative classes", "the two things", "the two Israeli soldiers were captured in Lebanon", "the two noble kinsmen".

    I'm not sure about "the five sacred wounds".

  42. zhe.shi.wo said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    and the al Azhar pronunciation is no error?

  43. John Cowan said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 2:51 am

    Kragen: [i plurIb@s un@m] is the traditional English pronunciation of e pluribus unum, and it's what I'd expect to hear in a speech by an anglophone. [raiS] is a relatively minor error, usual in English, and actually appearing in some accents of German.

  44. Aaron Davies said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 2:55 am

    islam's concept of the "people of the book" (jews, christians, and muslims as the only non-pagans) probably figures in here somewhere.

  45. Outis said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    @Sitaker: We may think him to be agnostic at heart, but that is just our opinions and irrelevant in criticising the wording of his speech. His professed faith is Christianity, which must mean that he does not claim to believe in Mohammed as a true prophet.

    No, "The three great religions" certainly isn't in the same class as "The Three Stooges"–not linguistically anyway. I am saying that "the [number] [adjective] [noun]" does not imply exhaustiveness. Let's say, on the subject of American economy "the two major car companies" would be understood as GM and Ford, which obviously are not the only two major car companies in the world. The context of the speech clearly limits the scope of the discussion, and there would be no point to go out of the way to include irrelevant items in the discourse.

    "The [number] [noun] of [noun]" is another matter altogether. "The three religions of Palestine" does imply exhaustiveness, since Palestine (or internet, web, PDF accessibility) is a precise and finite entity. "The three religions of greatness", or "the three religions of divine revelation", or "the three religions of interwoven history", do not imply exhaustiveness, since these nouns are ideas without finite boundaries.

    If anyone else read "the three great religions" as snubbing the other great religions, there would have been an immediate uproar all over the media, not to mention here on LL. But there hasn't been. Of course, I can't stop you if you insist on taking up the mantle.

  46. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    @John Cowan: Thank you.

    @Outis: I certainly don't want to stir up trouble in international relations, but it is an interesting point of English usage. I wonder if there's a less contentious example of this ambiguity that can be found elsewhere.

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