A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, February 3, 2011

An Etymological Diversion: The Word "Baltagi"

The proper response to yesterday's attack on the demonstrators in Tahrir, and the ongoing clashes which continue, is revulsion, combined with amazement at the bizarre spectacle of men on horseback and (even more bizarre) camelback attacking the protesters. The Mamluk cavalry ride down the Facebook and Twitter revolutionaries.

I've said about all I can say without abandoning civility about what has been going on. And while the heroic demonstrators can expect no diversions or relaxation so long as they are under attack, here in Washington I have the ability to divert my own outrage by thinking about some of the cultural and other aspects of these events.

We have all talked about the "thugs," the attackers either hired by the ruling party or by the security services, who often are used against demonstrators and certainly were yesterday. They often carry sticks to beat people, and also abuse and humiliate women demonstrators in demeaning ways.

The word we are all translating as "thugs" is baltagi (بلطجي ), plural baltagiyya (بلطجية). It has an interesting history, and since I know some of my readers at least like my occasional diversions on the Arabic language, I thought I'd divert my own anger for a bit by talking about this word.

It comes from the word balta, axe, with the Turkish-derived suffix -ji (-ci in modern Turkish orthography, -gi in Egyptian pronunciation). It means literally "man with the axe," and no, you poker players, it doesn't refer to the King of Diamonds. It has meanings relating to woodcutting and such, but also came to be applied to halabardiers, the soldiers carrying the halberd or long axe-like weapon (like the King of Diamonds) in the Ottoman and Mamluk armies. Military terms tend to evolve (not all Grenadier Guards carry grenades), and in modern Arabic military terms it has come to mean a sapper or pioneer, someone going out ahead of the army to prepare the battlefield.

That's the core meaning. Socrates Spiro's 1895 dictionary of colloquial Egyptian Arabic still lists only the military meaning in colloquial as well. But somewhere along the line it acquired a pejorative, colloquial meaning, applied to street thugs, gangsters, pimps, and other such. It has come to be applied to Egypt's National Democratic Party enforcers, and their equivalents in the plainclothes security police.

How this new meaning evolved isn't entirely clear. Some have suggested that some well known street gang might have used the axe as a symbol, but that sounds like an after-the-fact rationalization. I'd be glad to hear any other explanations.


semi-expert said...

According to Ahmad El Muslimani, host of Dream TV's الطبعة الاولى along with the meanings you rightly attribute to the word, it was applied to the men clearing the ground ahead of excavations for the Suez Canal. Perhaps this gives a clue to its current derivation. In fact Muslimani traces it directly to that. Apparently those were tough men, difficult to get along with.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Thanks, I'd never heard that, and it makes sense.