Thursday, March 24, 2011

I Write Gaddafi, You Write Qadhafi

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's treatment of his country's people is far from funny, but we word nerds may be amused by the seemingly infinite ways in which media outlets have spelled his name. The Wikipedia page on Gaddafi claims that as many as 112 variants exist. These include:
  • Muammar Gaddafi (used by TIME magazine, BBC News, most British press, the English service of Al-Jazeera) 
  • Moammar Gadhafi (Associated Press, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News)
  • Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi (U.S. Department of State)
  • Muammar el-Qaddafi (the White House, New York Times)
  • Moammar Kadafi (Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times)
The possibilities are summarized in this handy chart, also from Wikipedia.

How about Qezzaffy? No, I'm certain it's Khudhdhafy.

    Reportedly, the dictator writes his own name "Moammar El-Gadhafi."

    Why doesn't a single standard spelling exist? In short, Arabic words are pronounced differently in different regions. These variations lead to variations in transliteration. Simple enough; what's more remarkable is that the American media and even the U.S. government have chosen so many different spellings to represent the name, and that no one spelling has been chosen as the "standard" in the 40+ years Gaddafi's been in power. In fact, the debate over how to spell his name has been raging since at least the eighties.

    The question is, then, why each organization has chosen the spelling it has. Are there legitimate arguments for picking any one over the others? (I chose "Gaddafi" because it's relatively phonetic--to my ear, anyway--and thus easy for me to remember.)

    Know something about orthography or setting style standards? Has your organization had to pick a spelling of The Name? Comment and let me know.


    1. I like that chart showing the spelling variants. I've thought about creating such a chart for similar situations.

    2. This is interesting. I was noticing over the weekend that one news channel spells Osama Bin Laden 'Usama.' I don't understand it. I realize, to some degree, when we translate, there are options, but really? The media as a whole works out a single way to refer to plenty of things throughout the course of 'the news' - for example, no one person decided to call where the World Trade Center once stood 'Ground Zero,' but through usage, it came to be known that... so why can't the media agree on either Osama or Usama? It's very strange to me. Thanks for a little bit of insight into how the media comes up with variations of translated names. Like you, I'd still love to know why they pick the spelling that they do.


    What do you think? Thoughtful comments are welcome.