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September 8, 2008

Bojinka Might Mean “of a Boeing” in Serbo-Croatian

Filed under: Complete 911 Timeline — kevinfenton @ 3:25 pm
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J. M. Berger recently wrote a piece about the origin of the word Bojinka. Bojinka was the name of a plot in which WTC bomber Ramzi Yousef, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others intended to attack Boeing airliners, most famously by blowing 11 or 12 up on their way to the US. There has been some speculation about the word’s origin, as it is thought to be Serbo-Croatian (KSM fought in Bosnia), but it is usually claimed that the word bojinka does not exist in that language.

I speak Czech, a Slavic language related to Serbo-Croatian, and in Czech “bojink” is an informal way of writing “Boeing.” Here is the somewhat complicated explanation: Czechs—and other Slavs—cannot pronounce “Boeing” properly for two reasons. First, the diphthong represented by “oe” in Boeing in unpronouncable to Czechs, as Slavic languages are poor in diphthongs and they can’t get their tongue around it. Therefore, “oe” is replaced by “oj”, the closest Czech equivalent, when people speak. Second, they can’t pronounce “g” at the end of a word, and they typically replace it with a “k”. Therefore, the aircraft company from Seattle is usually written “Boeing”, but pronounced “bojink”. You would never find it written as “bojink” in a formal document, but, when writing informally, the word could, and is, written “bojink”–some examples can even be found on the internet.

I asked a couple of Bosnians about this, and they said that Serbo-Croatian speakers tended to pronounce “Boeing” as “bojink” and that if one wrote the word as it was pronounced by a Serbo-Croatian speaker then it would be written “bojink”.

So where does the “a” at the end of “bojinka” come from? Unlike English, Slavic languages are highly inflected and nouns change depending on various things, such as which verb proceeds them. The “a” could well indicate that the noun “bojink” is in a different case. One possibility is second case (genitive), which can be used to express the concept of “of”. (For example, when the Prague area of Žižkov is placed in second case, an “a” is added at the end, making it “Žižkova”, so “the major of Žižkov” would be “starosta Žižkova”.) According to this Serbo-Croatian grammar, an “a” is added at the end of some nouns to place them in a different case—genitive—in Serbo-Croatian (the example given at the last link is “dečak” [child], an “a” is added at the end to make it genitive, giving “dečaka”). This indicates that “bojinka” may mean “of a Boeing” in Serbo-Croatian.

However, there is a caveat we should add here: my Serbo-Croatian is not that hot and I don’t know whether an “a” added at the end of a masculine singular inanimate noun makes it genitive (or puts it into any case other than nominative). For example, it could just as easily be a “u” that should be added—giving “bojinku”–which is the way it is done in Czech. In addition, Berger and also the author Peter Lance asked Serbo-Croatian speakers about the word and they claimed it was not a word in Serbo-Croatian. My guess would be that the people they asked were thinking of formal words, whereas “bojink” is just a way of phonetically writing the word “Boeing” as it is pronounced, so it did not occur to the people they spoke to.

Having said that, “bojink” certainly does mean Boeing and having it in a plot involving Boeing aircraft is just too much of a coincidence for me. On the other hand, why the word would be in genitive beats me. Maybe Arab speakers were just having a problem getting their head round cases.

4 Comments »

  1. I love it. It’s not often that foreign affairs, militancy, and linguistics collide. Nice catch, Kevin.

    Comment by Max — September 9, 2008 @ 11:58 pm | Reply

  2. Should it not also be said, based on your explanation, that “boj” is also pronounced as “boy”, although spelled with a “j”? If that is true, then the correct pronunciation would then be phonetically pronounced “boyinka”, and not “bojinka” with a soft “g” sound? Any thoughts?

    Comment by william — July 28, 2009 @ 6:02 am | Reply

  3. William, that’s basically right – the “j” is pronounced like the “y” in “boy,” although the “o” is shorter, not like the “oi” sound in “boy.”

    Comment by kevinfenton — August 2, 2009 @ 12:10 pm | Reply

  4. I first read about ‘bojinka’ in the Japanese press in after Ikegami-san was murdered on flight 434 to Tokyo from Manilla via Cebu..The unusual name stood out…I wasn’t sure if it was pronounced ‘BoJINka or ‘bo-In-ka’ The words that came to mind were “pachinko” and “boink”.perhaps related to Boeing or else a well-known slang term. I knew enough about Czech and Spanish pronunciation to try using a soft ‘y’ sound in place of j,,,but I wasn’t sure which was more accurate or which meaning the terrorists intended. What I saw as ominous with either pronunciation was how frivolous it made mass murder sound…something like a boardgame..I’d asked my counselor to pass my concerns the bojinka plotters were in our flight schools preparing to strike..While I hated the word for how it cloaked a potentially massive plot I did feel – along with the names I gave them – that it would be easy for authorities to find information about it within their database and in the Japanese press..I was familiar with it being described as a “project” at the time but given the passage of time and the warning signs I felt it should more accurately be described as a plot which needed to be stopped before planes began plowing into our buildings. After I asserted the plotters were in our flight schools. it led to this conclusion. “You want them stopped,,” she noted. “Yes! I want the plot stopped.” For me and I hope others, this is how bojinka became viewed as a likely plot and not a far-off project.

    Comment by Prince Blake — September 14, 2011 @ 6:54 pm | Reply


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