Brand new French President François Hollande has already made his first foreign policy blunder: appointing a prime minister whose name will spark derisive snickering all across the Middle East.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former German language teacher and now the prime minister of France, will have no problem crossing the language barrier when it comes to dealing with German diplomats; he is expected to help smooth the relationship between Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But when it comes to the Middle East, he's facing an unexpected linguistic problem. 'Ayrault,' it turns out, sounds just like a crude Arabic term for male genitalia.
Phonetically, the prime minister's last name is difficult to transliterate into English; it involves the guttural 'r' favored in French, Arabic and other languages. Arabic speakers are likely to hear 'Ayrault' as a combination of ??? (pronounced 'ayr'), which is slang for 'penis,' and the suffix ? (pronounced 'oh'), which signifies a masculine possessive, or 'his.'
One could imagine the suppressed snickering at a diplomatic encounter in, say, Saudi Arabia, where former French prime ministers have visited in the past.
Your Eminence, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia... We present to you the Prime Minster of France, Jean-Marc His-Penis!
To avoid embarrassing situations like this, French officials are taking minor liberties with the spelling and pronunciation of Ayrault. In a statement, the French Foreign Ministry suggested that the final letters L and T, which would be silent in French, should be pronounced in Arabic speech.
Across the Middle East, media outlets are finding their own solutions to this tricky problem. Bloomberg News reports that a few have chosen their own creative transliterated versions, ranging from Aro to Aygho.
One Dubai paper even avoided the issue altogether by casually referring to the prime minister by his first name.
The matter is further complicated by the variant nature of Arabic. It is a language of myriad forms, ranging from Classical Arabic, which is the ancient language of the Quran, to the Modern Standard Arabic that is commonly used by the media, to countless spoken dialects that are often mutually unintelligible to speakers from different areas of the Middle East.
Bloomberg reports that 'Ayrault' sounds like the word for penis in colloquial Arabic in many countries, leaving uncertainties as to which particular regions may take offense. But a blog post from Michael Collins Dunn, editor of the Middle East Journal, offered a minor quibble to that phraseology.
It's not just colloquial Arabic, he wrote, explaining that 'Ayrault' presents a problem even in standard literary communication. While the pronunciation in literary Arabic would be a u vowel rather than an o vowel, the spelling would be the same.
In other words, the prime minister's name presents a problem in the Modern Standard Arabic that is used by many major media outlets all across the Middle East, regardless of dialect.
Maybe Ayrault ought to stick to European diplomacy for now, and avoid a visit to any Arabic-speaking countries... at least until the snickering dies down.