How the Letter "K" Landed a Turkish Columnist in Jail

A Blog About Language
May 2 2014 3:41 PM

How the Letter "K" Landed a Turkish Columnist in Jail

139794713-turkish-prime-minister-recep-tayyip-erdogan-speaks
Use the letter "k" with caution when tweeting about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Photo by MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, outspoken journalist Önder Aytaç, who writes a column for the opposition Turkish newspaper Taraf, was sentenced to ten months in jail by an Ankara court for "insulting public officials." Aytaç's conviction, as bizarre as it sounds, was the result of an errant "k" on Twitter.

As University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill professor Zeynep Tufekci explained in a widely cited Medium post, Aytaç fell out with Turkey's ruling AKP party over a system of private schools—known as dershaneler—backed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan eventually shut the schools down, but in the midst of the spat, back in September 2012, Aytaç tweeted a link to a column he wrote for the news site Rotahaber:

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UNC's Tufekci translated the tweet as follows:

The tweet referring to the private schools says: "CLOSE THEM DOWN MY CHIEF :-)", using the word "ustam" which means "my chief" or "my master" and is a common nickname for Erdogan among his supporters. Aytaç added a letter "k" to the word, which transforms the end portion of the word to an off-color abbreviation, in effect writing "eff off."

The tweet was sufficient grounds for Erdogan to sue Aytaç under a Turkish law that criminalizes insults to public officials. The website Vice News is a bit more specific regarding the translation of the offending tweet, and also identifies a second tweet by Aytaç using the same ribald wordplay:

In a tweet posted on September 20, 2012, Aytac posted a link to his opinion piece that attacked an education program backed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and said: "Close the prep schools, if you will, my master."
The word "ustam" means "my chief" or "my master" in Turkish, a common way to refer to Erdogan. The rogue "k" inserted on the end, however, turned it into a phrase which literally translates as "fuck your pussy" but is used by Turks in a manner roughly synonymous to "fuck you."

Aytaç claimed that the extra "k" was merely a typo, but the fact that he added the letter in two separate tweets would seem to undermine that explanation. Regardless of whether Aytaç simply fat-fingered the spelling of "ustam" (twice) or was intentionally inserting an obscene insult, how could an extra "k" wreak so much havoc?

A response to Tufekci's Medium post from Ali Ates on Twitter provides some enlightenment:

Ates suggests that adding the "k" to "ustam" is roughly equivalent in English to appending "FFS" (an abbreviation of "for fuck's sake") to the end of "chief." In Turkish, "ustam" + "k" results in the letter sequence "amk." As explained in various online forums, "amk" is used as an abbreviation for the obscene interjection amına koyayım, which, as Vice News pointed out, indeed means "fuck your pussy." ("AMK" can have other meanings in Turkish, by the way: it's also the title of a sports news outlet, which uses it as an abbreviation for Açık, Mert, Korkusuz, or "Open, Valiant, Fearless.")

So if Aytaç was really inserting an insult, it was an exceedingly subtle one that he could pass off with plausible deniability as a typing error. The Aytaç case is reminiscent of slyly provocative language play in other countries buckling against authoritarian rule, such as Indonesia under Suharto or Romania under Ceausescu. As I wrote in the New York Times after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, "playing with language is often one of the few ways to challenge an oppressive political system, and the pointed humor behind the linguistic ingenuity can create strong bonds of solidarity." But under a regime like Erdogan's in Turkey, even the subtlest of subversive wordplay—in the form of a single extra letter in a tweet—can get you thrown in jail.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer for Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

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