Say My Name

When news anchors call the former Iraqi president "Saddam," are they name-dissing?

Dear Social Grace,

Discussions of the following topic have reached a feverish pitch here at my home: Namely, we have noticed, in many forums of discussion about the war in Iraq, the tendency of many people to refer to Saddam Hussein as "Saddam," even when they refer to other world leaders with appropriate titles and last names in the same sentence. This is especially common on some news shows, and in the speeches of our own president. Is this or is this not impolite behavior?

Sincerely,
News Junkie

Dear Newsy Sir or Madam,

Feverish discussions are my least favorite sort, and to prevent this conversation's temperature from rising, I shall try to avoid any overt political commentary (this really isn't the right place for that). Let's start by quoting the very wise Winston Churchill, who said, "When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite." He was remarking on "formal" declarations of war (and his tongue was likely pointed ever so slightly toward his cheek), but his point is, I think, broadly relevant: Even if one is dealing with an outrageously despicable person (as Churchill certainly was), there is a moral correctness in following applicable rules of conduct. If even the worst criminal has the right to humane imprisonment and a fair trial, he seems, to me, to deserve evenhanded treatment as far as his name is concerned. On concepts such as these, civilization is built.

Before we can address your main query, we must first answer the question, "What is the correct way to refer to Saddam Hussein?" It's not as simple as you might think. "Saddam Hussein" isn't the first name/last name combination common in English. There are a variety of good arguments for different forms of identification employed by reputable news outlets, so perhaps it is wisest to follow the advice of The Associated Press Stylebook, which counsels us to call people what they wish to be called if they make a preference known (good advice in many situations). Saddam Hussein does seem to prefer "Saddam."

Even so, referring to him in print as "Hussein" (or even Anglicizing his name and calling him "Mr. Hussein") is not incorrect, if what may look like a first-name basis seems inappropriate. I prefer too much formality to too little.

The perceived behavior under discussion at your house, "name-disrespecting" -- belittling or delegitimizing someone by refusing to accord him his courtesy title, by intentionally mispronouncing his name, or by giving him an unflattering nickname -- is as old as human interaction. I've seen it happen at parties, between people who simply don't like each other: Mary refers to Jane (whom she knows perfectly well but doesn't much care for) as "what's-her-name" or "Janet" as a way not only to express disdain but also to slightly color others' opinions. I really don't think we're seeing a lot of this sort of thing on the evening news.

Dear Social Grace,

Almost four years ago I attended a wedding of two very good friends I had known only a short time. At the time of the wedding I was in financial despair and was only able to attend (looking presentable) thanks to the help of other friends we had in common. I put the wedding gift purchase on the back burner under the presumption that I had up to a year to do so. For sentimental reasons, my original plan was to make a plate or platter with the poem "The Owl and the Pussycat" on it. My thought was to go to one of those pottery studios where you pick the piece, paint and glaze it, and have them fire it, and then I would present it.

This never happened, and time went on.

Now here I am four years later, and in a much better financial situation. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about this and I want to rectify my faux pas. Unfortunately, I am no longer in contact with the couple, although I do still cherish the friendship we once had. It has recently come to my attention that they just celebrated the first birthday of their son.

Can you provide me with any suggestions on what I should do now? Do I call them and tell them I want to get together and present them with a gift then? Do I send them a gift in the mail with a letter explaining what I've told you? And finally, what on earth could I possibly give them as a gift at this point?

Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Feeling Like a Cad in S.F.

Dear Feeling Madam or Sir,

I see nothing too terribly caddish about your behavior thus far. The first and foremost obligation of a wedding guest is to show up looking presentable, which you did. A wedding gift is customary but not obligatory. Your friends' marriage seems to be rolling along just fine without the benefit of a plate featuring "The Owl and the Pussycat," delightful as that sounds.

But if that plate was a good idea then, why isn't it a good idea now? In your place, I'd worry that a special gift-giving get-together would be awkward, especially for them, after a long pause in friendly relations. Still, "better late than never" applies here. Send the present you originally wanted to send, with apologies for its delay. Don't offer too much explanation, which tends to lessen the effect of an apology, and certainly don't mention your financial situation, then or now. Be sure to say how much you cherish the friendship you once had, and offer felicitations on the arrival of their family's newest member. I can't imagine why they wouldn't be delighted to receive a thoughtful handmade gift, no matter how late, and why they couldn't -- even now -- hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, dance by the light of the moon.

 
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