In episode 3 of season 1 on “The Good Place”, Tahani Al-Jamil claimed that her name in Arabic means “congratulations, beautiful.” And while there’s no doubt that the former model and Hollywood socialite is a beauty, her arrogance may have something to do with a little mistranslation of her name.
Tahani’s first language is most likely not Arabic, as she is Pakistani-English. So it’s no surprise that she violated some basic Arabic grammar rules in her translation. And while there is some connection in her name to the words “congratulations,” and “beautiful,” the connection is misrepresented enough that learning it would satisfy her rival and fan, Eleanor Shellstrop, very much.
So let’s break it down a little….
“Tahani” means congratulations.
“Al-Jamil” is a two part word.
The first part of the word, “Al” is equivalent to the English word “The”. It’s common for Arabic last names to contain this word as a pre-fix.
And “Jamil” means beautiful. However, Arabic is a gendered language. It assigns genders to nouns, including objects…and the assignment follows no specific rules (thankfully; if it did it would probably be awkward and most definitely sexist).* In the case of the word “Jamil,” it needs to match the gender of the person or object it’s describing.
“Jamil” is the masculine form of beautiful. To describe a man as “Jamil,” you’re describing him as beautiful (possible helpful tip: it means beautiful, not handsome). To describe a woman as beautiful, you would say “Jamila.”
So “Jamil,” in Tahani’s name can’t possibly refer to her.
To add a little more to this jumble of mess, if you wanted to call a woman or man beautiful –not just describe them as that– then you would need to add the word “ya,” or “يا” before it. So to say “Hi, beautiful,” to a woman, you would need to say “Marhaba ya Jamila,” “مرحبا يا جميلة” (please, do use this phrase responsibly. Some Arabic-speaking women might find flirting offensive). And to say “Congratulations, beautiful,” you would need to say “Tahani ya Jamila,” “تهاني يا جميلة.” This is different from describing the girl as beautiful by specifically saying “You are beautiful,” in Arabic, “Enti Jamila,” or “انتي جميلة.”
Putting together the words’ meanings so far, we have “congratulations the beautiful (man or boy).” And we know that the word “beautiful” in this case is a description of someone or something, and not used to call them. The phrase doesn’t make much sense in English, but here’s another tip about Arabic language: it often eliminates some of the smaller words in English, like “of” and “is”. It sees them as unnecessary. So if you hear someone Arabic learning English for the first-time and saying “I Mohammed,” or “My name Aisha,” consider that you can figure out what they’re trying to say without the verb “to be.”
Similarly, for “congratulations the beautiful (man or boy),” to make sense in English, we need to add an article. And the article choice defaults, in this case, to “of” since it is the only option that doesn’t change too much in the meaning of the phrase. But here it goes…
Tahani Al-Jamil translates to “Congratulations of the beautiful (man or boy),” –absolutely nothing to brag about, Tahani. As Eleanor would say to prove a point, “ya basic!”
The next time you want to call someone something in Arabic, remember to use “ya” before it just like Eleanor does (as always, please use your new knowledge of Arabic responsibly 😉 ).
*For example, the word “Tawla,” or “طاولة” in Arabic, which means table. The assigned gender for a table in Arabic is feminine. For “Kursi,” or “كرسي,” which means chair, the designation is masculine. You might be tempted to think the assignment is related to size, so that larger items are feminine and smaller are masculine. But the relatively smaller car -“sayyara,” or “سيارة”- is feminine, while a bus -“باص,” or “اوتوبيس”- is masculine.