Chaudhuri vs. Chaudhary?

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2008/03/12 07:16 -04:00, original URI:

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Now it isn't Bangalore vs. Bengaluru.

And it isn't Uighur vs. Uyghur.

And it really isn't Farsi vs. Persian.

Or Macao vs. Macau.

But the other day, reader James asked me via the Contact link:

I have noticed that you have mentioned the last name Chaudhuri in your blog a few times. What is the relationship between Chaudhuri and Chaudhary, another name I have seen before?

An interesting question, one that has at its heart the very informal and non-standard way that non-English words are transliterated into English for the purpose of people really moving to use English as their main language in some or most contexts....

Now in this case the name (চৌধুরী) moved into English can find itself in many different forms -- and not just Chaudhuri and Chaudhary, either -- there is Choudhury, Choudhuri, Chowdhury, and so on -- the Wikipedia article lists 21 different spellings:

  • Chowdhury
  • Choudhury
  • Chaudhuri
  • Chaudhry
  • Chaudhary
  • Chaudhery
  • Choudhary
  • Chaudry
  • Chouddery
  • Chaudhari
  • Chaudhury
  • Choudhry
  • Chowdhary
  • Chowdhry
  • Chawdhauri
  • Chaudhri
  • Chaudri
  • Choudary
  • Choudhuri
  • Choudry
  • Chowdary
  • Chowdhary
  • I once almost (after seeing so many different people within Bengal and Bangladesh with that same last name who were not related) whether this was like the way Sikhs see all boys with a middle or last name of Singh and all girls with the middle or last name Kaur.

    Then I looked at some of those various name sites and in addition to long articles like the Wikipedia one came up with this text from The Chowdhury Surname at

    Indian (Bengal) and Bangladeshi: Muslim and Hindu status name for a head of a community or caste, from Sanskrit catus- ‘four-way’, ‘all-round’ + dhuriya ‘undertaking a burden (of responsibility)’ (Sanskrit dhura ‘burden’). The title was originally awarded to persons of eminence, both Muslims and Hindus, by the Mughal emperors. The Khatris have a clan called Chowdhury. In some traditions the term is said to derive from a title for a military commander controlling four different fighting forces, namely navy, cavalry, infantry, and elephant corps, but this is probably no more than folk etymology.

    Is it any stranger than the Hebrew last name that is derived from the High Priesthood originally the Sons of Aaron making it to our modern times as both priests and non-priests with the last names of Cohen, Cohn, Kohn, and so on? Probably not -- and both come from the same problem of mapping to English sounds in another language.

    Choosing one's name one will use goes beyond the issue that is faced in the Khadafi vs. Ghadafi vs. Qadafi and so on situation -- where the person with the name is not necessarily the one choosing what the spelling ought to be. Standards are developed within a single news organization to try and be consistent in last name spellings, but between organization it is anyone's guess, and the person following the news back when Muammar and Libya were in the public eye so much had to be ready for any of dozens of different possible spellings.

    And if I am deriving information from five different articles on the Libyan Prime Minister, I would likely regularize the different spellings in my own article rather than use their five different spellings.

    But in names? Amit Chaudhuri is the name on the books and the one I would use in talking about those books, just as I would refer to the advocate as Nita Chaudhary or the guy in the UN who did so much to further the rights of women and children as Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, all without blinking an eye and without being tempted to try to regularize the spellings.

    My own last name I have seen as Kaplan and Caplan/Caplin (and many others), and the conventional wisdom that the ones spelled with a "C" are not Jewish and the ones spelled with a "K" are is something that I have met exceptions to the "rule" myself, in both directions -- even ignoring examples you may know something of yourself like Alfred Gerald Caplin (you may know him as Al Capp, best known for Li'l Abner).

    I suppose the fact that we take people at their personal preference for their own name in some cases but not others is perhaps a fascinating study in both respect and the lack thereof.

    And I say that as someone who has no problems having opinions on issues like calling a city Bengaluru, or a language name Persian or Macau or Uyghur....


    This blog brought to you by(U+099a, aka BENGALI LETTER CA)

    # John Cowan on 12 Mar 2008 11:31 AM:

    I think in general people's chosen transliterations are respected if they have expressed them:  for example, Benjamin Netanyahu beats Binyamin Netanyahu about 4 to 1.  Gadhafi may be a special case here, because he rose to prominence long before he expressed a preference, and also because he did it in such a backhanded way.

    By the way, did you know that "Katz" is also a Cohen variant, from "kohen tzaddik"?  My name, on the other hand, is pure Irish, from Mac Eoghain, and pronounced as in "cow" -- a fact that has cost me a lot of explanations over the years, and at least one "Don't try to fool *me*, you self-hating Jew, you're a Cohen and you know it" dirty look.

    # Sahej on 14 Mar 2008 2:08 AM:

    Its Kaur and not Saur.

    # Michael S. Kaplan on 14 Mar 2008 3:05 AM:

    Oops! Fixed now.... thanks! :-)

    # rakib on 6 Nov 2008 12:09 PM:

    give me the correct spelling of chowdhury pls

    # Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Nov 2008 1:45 PM:

    If you read the blog, you'll see there is no "correct" spelling. Well other than চৌধুরী, I mean. :-)

    John Cowan on 16 Oct 2010 9:00 AM:

    It's funny how "Al Capp" looks so much more Jewish than "Alfred Gerald Caplin", at least to me.

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