No newsmaker in recent memory has seen more versions of the spelling of his name than Libya's strongman, Colonel ... how do you spell it?
The US State Department goes with "Qadhafi." The Associated Press, CNN, and MSNBC spell it "Gadhafi." Reuters and the BBC opt for "Gaddafi." At the Los Angeles Times, it's "Kadafi," and the New York Times spells it "Qaddafi." For what it's worth, that last version is also the Monitor's preferred spelling (though, like other news outlets, we could be doing a better job of sticking to it consistently.)
However it's spelled, the man whose official title is "Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya" is the world's third-longest-serving current head of state (after the monarchs of Thailand and Great Britain, respectively), so this problem isn't new. Way back in 1986, Straight Dope columnist Cecil Adams, who counted 32 known spellings listed by the Library of Congress, explained the proliferation:
The basic problem here is that (1) there is no generally accepted authority for romanizing Arabic names, and (2) the Mummer's name contains several sounds that have no exact equivalent in English. In standard Arabic, the initial consonant qaf is pronounced like a throaty k, midway between the English k and the German ch, as in Bach. The second consonant, dhal--two dhals, actually--is pronounced like a double dh, which is similar to English th, only with the tongue pulled back a bit behind the teeth. Regional pronunciation differences further complicate matters. Libyans tend to pronounce qaf like a hard g, which has inspired a whole different set of spellings.
And that's just the the surname. Variations on his given name include Muammar, Moammar, Mu'ammar, Moamar, and so on. Adding to the confusion, some writers add the Arabic prefix "al-" before his last name, which can also be spelled "el-." And the "a" and "e" can be upper or lower case.
Usually news outlets just go with whatever spelling the subject prefers, but the Brother Leader has been of little help here. The banner at the top of his personal website spells it, "AL Gathafi," a rendering that, like his attire, is uniquely his. But if you go deeper into the site, you'll see it rendered as "Al Qaddafi," "Algathafi," and "Al-Gathafi." Adding to the confusion is the "Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights," an award that he founded, and presumably named.
Still, there's something to be said for his laid-back orthography. Contrast it with that of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, who once sentenced a journalist to six months of hard labor for neglecting to write the final syllable of the Dear Leader's name.
In the digital age, the spelling of the Libyan head of state's name is causing more headaches for news organizations than ever before. Google "Gaddafi" and you'll get a different list of search results than you would if you Googled "Qaddafi," which is different again from what you'd get from Googling "Gadhafi."
We want readers to be able to find our work, which means that whenever we write about the Colonel, we have to add all of these different spellings into the story's source code so that the search bots will find it. Either that, or we come up with a way to work all these variations into the story itself.
Eoin O'Carroll works on the Monitor's Web team and blogs for the Environment section.