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In Frank Herbert's Dune, the name of a mega-corporation CHOAM stands for Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles. However, while I recognize some of the word roots in the full name, I never really knew what this name means. I hope someone can shed some light on this.

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To the best of my knowledge, the term is never explicitly explained in Dune/EU canon (including Dune Encyclopedia), nor on Wiki and other Dune resources.

It is a typical mishmash of "European-Indo-Slavic" language roots that characterize Galach language and Imperial institutions overall, in the case mostly seemingly French and German and Latin roots.

Combine - Latin and later French root, meaning to unite. In this case, it means both a union (in the modern sense of "company"), as well as possible reference to the duality of the union (bi part of latin root) hinting at the origins of CHOAM in the tension between Spacing Guild and Imperium

Honnete comes from Middle French (and Late Latin) root for "honest"/"honorable". The latter is a typical honorific for top classes (which CHOAM was - directors were Landsraad house leads); while the former hints at equitable resolution for abovementioned tensions between Spacing Guild and Landsraad.

Ober is of course from Old German for "super"/"very"/"upper".

Advancer (Old French with Late Latin roots again) is most likely "advancement"/"acceleration"/"promotion" based on CHOAM's purpose.

Mercantiles (French via Latin, again) is trade or items of trade.

In total, the best translation I can pick is "Honest/Honorable union for promotion of greater/higher trade".

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  • The "Combine Honnête" juxtaposition always gave me a smirk. A "combine" in French has the meaning of a dishonest "scheme". From Collins' Dictionary: 1. (= astuce) trick; 2. (pejorative) scheme, fiddle (Brit). "être dans la combine": "to be in on it" (informal). It's like someone saying they are the progressive mobsters or the providential State: You know you will be taxed or worse. – David Tonhofer Jun 22 '19 at 8:30
  • As for "Mercantiles", the word directly evokes "Mercantilism", an approach to international trade whereby trade is considered a weapon and a zero-sum game: The second school, [...], portrays mercantilism [...] as the best possible system for those who developed it [...] rent-seeking merchants and governments developed and enforced mercantilist policies. Merchants benefited greatly from the enforced monopolies, bans on foreign competition, and poverty of the workers. Govs benefited from the high tariffs and payments from the merchants. – David Tonhofer Jun 22 '19 at 8:41
  • I'd suggest that the "honorable" part was chosen to reflect famous similar companies of the real past, e.g., "The Honorable East India Company." – Mark Olson Jun 26 at 17:25
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I can't find a literal translation or a quote from Herbert explaining exactly what it means. The only mention I can find is from Dune Genesis where he said:

The scarce water of Dune is an exact analog of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC.

OPEC of course is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

My very rough attempt at a translation based on the Latin root words in Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles (and taking into account the structure and function of CHOAM in the books) would be something like The Honorable Confederacy for the Advancement of Mercantilism.

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  • 1
    The scarcity of spice is the exact analog of oil, as it mediates transportation. – Lighthart Jun 2 '17 at 14:34
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DVK has a great answer on this, I just want to add a possible translation that might more closely cling to the understanding the citizens of the empire have in-universe.

Über can mean 'super' or 'very' as DVK lists but can also mean 'over' in the sense of 'concerning', which he communicates in his final translation as 'for'. Advancer could be an infinitive (to advance) or an adjective agreeing in number to the plural noun mercantiles OR a plural noun itself which would render mercantiles the adjective agreeing in number.

In the second situation we would get something like 'Open Council of Productive Merchants' where open carries the connotation not only of 'honest' (that which is not closed and thus easy to inspect) but of accessible for anyone to join and council conveys the administrative function of the body. 'Of' here would be like 'over' saying this council has an authority over its members. 'Productive Merchants' would include not just traders but also producers.

If we went with the third option we get 'Open Council of Commerce Magnates' or something like that and this change might emphasize the exclusive, elite status either required to gain entry or that is afforded to members when they do become part of it.

In either case, the key difference is in the translation of ober as 'of' versus 'for'. Translating as 'of' does not yield a meaning so much about advancing a common commercial interest, but one carrying the notion of regulating, checking and correcting the members. DVK's final translation is something proactively collaborative, whereas mine would be something passively collaborative in that it's power binds its members.

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Just building on the first answer here, which - along with the others - I think was very good and informative. Taking the assumption that honnete (MF/LL) can be translated as either 'honest' or 'honourable' in English, and that English is the both the native language of the author and his (at least initial) intended audience, by extension the historical concept of an 'honourable company' in the English-speaking world may have had some bearing on his word choice.

In English the application of adjectives like this to corporations, usually in the form of guilds and trade associations (most notably in London), dates to the Middle Ages, and is still attested today in the form of the City of London's Livery Companies. Though such companies are for the most part termed 'The Worshipful Company of ____," later business ventures (often companies in the modern sense, sometimes of the joint-stock variety) adopted other adjectives to their names, including the word 'Honourable.'

Perhaps the most notable of these was The Honourable East India Company (EIC), to which Herbert may have been referring within the name CHOAM. I suspect this for several reasons. These include the fact that the EIC was chartered by the Crown, that it held a monopoly on Eastern Trade, became a politico-military power in its own right (in South Asia, where it orchestrated British hegemony in the Indian Subcontinent and Burma), was over-time increasingly subject to parliamentary and ministerial control, and for a time dominated global commerce - becoming the most powerful joint-stock company in history. Furthermore, EIC patronage came to play a significant role in Britain's politics and economy, both in the metropolis and throughout the Empire.

The situation in Herbert's universe mirrors the EIC in multiple ways. CHOAM was controlled by the Padishah Emperor and its operations (and profits resulting from them) were distributed to members of the Landsraad as a form of patronage, and the Emperor and Landsraad's direct involvement in CHOAM's operations mirror that of the Crown and Parliament in the post-1750s EIC. Additionally, the Spacing Guild's monopoly on FTL travel corresponds with the EIC's early monopoly - always unofficially, and later legally broken, as with smugglers in Dune - on Eastern trade. Finally, the Emperor, and some houses in the Landsraad's willingness to intervene militarily to ensure CHOAM profits somewhat mirrors the EIC's expansionist military policies in the 18th and 19th Centuries. This led to Company-sponsored military dominance in South Asia superficially similar to that of the Emperor and his supporters forces in Herbert's universe, where CHOAM held an even more dominant position in galactic trade than the EIC did globally in the 18th Century.

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