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This blog post was first published on November 19 2011, and substantially rewritten and re-posted on November 19 2015.

Famous Namesake
This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty, the military alliance which binds Australia to the United States. Partly to commemorate this occasion, the President of the United States, Mr Barack Obama, made a brief two-day stopover trip to Australia on his way to Bali. He is the fifth American president to visit Australia since Lyndon Johnson arrived in 1966.

Spending two days in Canberra and Darwin, capital cities of our two Territories, he made an address to Parliament, laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and paid his respects to the 89 US sailors who perished aboard the USS Peary after being bombed by the Japanese in Darwin Harbour in 1942. It was also announced that a US military base would be stationed in Darwin.

Handsome and charismatic, with a constant friendly smile, the President could not help but make himself popular. Mr Obama has the charm and good manners that we tend to think of as very American, and he made lots of pleasant jokes about Australian slang and the Australian accent, while expressing his fondness for the nation and its people (and no fondness at all for Vegemite, which is an acquired taste).

While in Canberra, he made a visit to a high school and hugged an excited young girl. “He’s so kind … and warm,” she exclaimed. That’s how Barack Obama came across – kind, warm, genuine, funny, and very charming.

Note: President Obama made another visit to Australia in 2014, when he attended the G-20 summit in Brisbane. He gave a speech to students at the University of Queensland, which received thunderous applause from a young audience unused to hearing political leaders talk about climate change and gender equality.

Name Information
Barack is a Swahili variant of the Arabic word barak meaning “blessed”. The name comes from a Semitic root meaning “to kneel down”, with connotations of someone receiving a benediction while on bended knee. In Islam, the related term barakah (“blessing”) means a continuous spiritual presence and revelation providing a flow of blessings and grace to those close to God, such as saints and holy people.

The name is sometimes confused with the Hebrew name Barak, meaning “shining, lightning”. In the Old Testament, Barak was a military commander. In Arabic the equivalent word for “lightning” is buraq – you can see it in the name Al-Buraq, the mystical horse who took the prophet Muhammad on his Night Journey to the heavens on a journey between Jerusalem and Mecca and back.

The Hebrew equivalent of Barack is Baruch, meaning “blessed”. It is related to the Hebrew word berakhah, meaning “benediction, blessing”. In Judaism, berakhah is a blessing or thanksgiving given before enjoying or performing certain acts; for example, before eating: it acknowledges God as the source of all blessings. Baruch can be Latinised as the name Benedict, which is why the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was Jewish, is often known to us as Benedict Spinoza.

As both Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages, it is easy to see how such confusion arises over similar or even identical-looking names.

By coincidence, Barak is also an Australian name. The famous Aboriginal spokesman William Barak (sometimes known as King Billy) took his surname from his tribal name of Beruk, meaning “white grub in gum tree”.

President Obama was named after his father, Barack Obama Sr, who was a senior economist in the Kenyan government during the 1960s. Mr Obama Sr was raised in a Muslim family, but was converted to Christianity at the age of six while attending a missionary school.

Apparently his original name was Baraka (from the Islamic term for spiritual blessings and grace), but he changed his name to Barack to avoid the overtly religious connotations of his name. I’m not sure how valid a conversion is in such a young child (it sounds almost coerced), but in any case it didn’t take, and Mr Obama became an atheist. His son did become a Christian, however.

The name Barack has never charted in the United States. Last year 11 babies were named Barack, a number which has decreased since 69 being born in 2009 – the year that Barack Obama Jr became President of the United States. In the year before President Obama’s presidential campaign, just 5 babies were named Barack.

Barack can only be found in British data between 2008 and 2010, peaking in 2009 at 17 births. I haven’t found any Baracks in Australian data, but based on international trends, it may have had a small spike in 2009.

Barack must be the most interesting of the American presidents’ names, and has at least busted the myth that you need a “presidential-style” name to become president of the United States (something like Ulysses or Grover, I presume).

One of its biggest issues as a baby name must be that it is so closely tied to the current US president, and may feel like a “one person name” – especially considering the name’s unique family history.

It could also be confused with similar names, and the pronunciation is something of an issue: although I understand it as buh-RAHK, I have heard it said it in a variety of ways by overseas commentators, including Burrock and Barrack. However, this is a strong handsome name with a nice meaning that will certainly stand out from the crowd.

NAME POLL RESULTS: Barack received an approval rating of 60%. 25% of people thought it was too closely tied to the American president, making it a one person name. However, 14% saw it as strong and commanding, and a further 14% thought it was a name unusual enough to stand out from the crowd. Only one person thought it was too rare, while 3% of people were put off the name because of President Obama.

(Picture shows President Obama arriving in Canberra in 2011; photo from the ABC)

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