Behind the scenes at The Interpreter, we've had some debate about what to call Indonesia's newest president. His name is Joko Widodo but, as news outlets everywhere will tell you, he is 'popularly known as Jokowi'.
Jokowi is not the first Indonesian president to have a nickname. The first president, Sukarno, was known to his people by the brotherly nickname 'Bung Karno', while Suharto went for the more patriarchal 'Pak Harto'. Abdurrahman Wahid's name was cut to a pithy 'Gus Dur', while Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became simply 'SBY'.
The story goes that Jokowi received his nickname from a Frenchman only identified in the press as 'Bernard', who bought furniture from Jokowi during his days as a trader in Solo. Bernard needed a name that was easy to pronounce but which also differentiated Jokowi from all his other suppliers in Java with the common name of 'Joko'. He took the first two letters of 'Widodo' and voila, the name 'Jokowi' was born.
The French and the Javanese happen to share a sense of humour when it comes to wordplay. Both love to play with acronyms, portmanteaus and syllable order. The French slang known as verlan, which involves reversing the order of syllables in a word, bears similarities with Central and East Javanese slang, such as the consonant-switching basa walikan in Yogyakarta, or the habit in Malang of turning words back to front (which on top of mixing Indonesian with Javanese didn't make language learning any easier when I studied in those two cities).
You or I may not get it, but 'Jokowi' is funny. And like any nickname, it connotes a sense of familiarity. So when Joko Widodo ran for mayor in Solo, he took with him the friendly sobriquet of 'Jokowi', and it eventually carried him to the governorship in Jakarta and on to the presidential palace.
But how should Jokowi be formally referred to now that he is president?
Foreign media will sometimes use 'Widodo', following the Western convention of formally referring to someone by their surname. But naming systems in Indonesia are different, and there are many of them. We're all familiar with the cliched qualifier '...who like many Indonesians goes by one name'.
Other outlets follow the Indonesian press standard of using the first name on second reference, though in Jokowi's case this tends to feel unnatural, and in headlines can end up with Bernard's old problem of the reader having to ask, 'which Joko?' Others still acknowledge the nickname on first reference and use it for all subsequent references. I am certainly guilty of overusing the awkward shorthand 'Joko "Jokowi" Widodo' on first reference.
The Jakarta Post's chief copy editor asked the president himself what he'd like to be called, just after his inauguration in October last year. At the time, he said he'd like to be called 'Jokowi', or 'President Jokowi' in formal contexts. But since then, formal hosts have insisted on adding honorific titles to the full name of 'Joko Widodo', such as 'Ir.' for his engineering degree, and 'H.' for having made the hajj pilgramage.
A government circular issued last week aimed to clear up confusion over the president's formal title. Widely published in local media, the circular was taken by some as a case of the president putting on airs. But in context, the title he has chosen aims to balance the dignity of his office with the humility befitting his public persona. It is: 'The Honourable President of the Republic of Indonesia, Mr Jokowi' (Yang Terhormat Presiden Republik Indonesia Bapak Jokowi).
That's President Jokowi to us.
Photo by Flickr user uyeah.