Each time Libya appears in the news, scores of newspaper editors go bananas. Once possessed of faculties that could detect a breaking story as readily as a dangling participle, these poor souls are now reduced to a jabbering stupor, as though they had gazed into the tentacled maw of Cthulhu himself.
Blame it on the name of the country's head of state, Colonel Gaddafi. Wait, no, that's Kaddafi. Or maybe it's Qadhafi. Tell you what, we'll just call him by his first name, which is, er ... hoo boy.
Part of the problem here is that there's no universally accepted authority for transliterating Arabic names. Normally, news outlets will just go with whatever spelling the subject prefers, but this particular subject hasn't settled on a single Roman orthography for his name.
Instead, Libya's Brother Leader lets a hundred flowers bloom. The banner at the top of his official website spells it, "AL Gathafi." But if you go deeper into the site, you'll see it variously rendered as "Al Qaddafi," "Algathafi," and "Al-Gathafi." Adding to the multitude of his spellings is the increasingly ironically named "Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights."
And that's just the surname. Variations on his given name include Muammar, Moammar, Mu'ammar, and Moamar, and many others. Once you've settled on how to spell his first and last names, you then have to decide whether you want to add the Arabic prefix "al-" before his last name. Which can also be spelled "el-." And then you have to decide whether the prefix should be capitalized.
This is the point where most editors give up and run a story on Justin Bieber instead.
For those few brave editors who press on, the result is a multiplicity of spellings. The Associated Press, CNN, and MSNBC spell it "Moammar Gadhafi." The New York Times spells it "Muammar el-Qaddafi." At the Los Angeles Times, it's "Moammar Kadafi." Reuters, the Guardian, and the BBC go with "Muammar Gaddafi." The Irish Times goes with "Muammar Gadafy." ABC News – which spells it "Moammar Gaddafi" – has posted a list of 112 variations on the English spelling of the Libyan strongman's name.
At The Christian Science Monitor, we go with "Muammar Qaddafi," a spelling that is no more or less defensible than anyone else's.
All this would just be a matter of idle curiosity if it weren't for the Web. Go to Google News and type in "Gadhafi." Now try "Qaddafi." And now try "Gaddafi." Notice how it returns three completely different lists of stories? How you choose to spell it determines what news you get.
This may be the point at which one feels one's grip on reality loosening. Do we change the spelling to whatever is the most-Google-searched-for rendering? What if it changes again? How do we find stories on our own site if we keep changing the spelling of the guy's name? And where did all these variations come from in the first place, if not the news media? Can't we just get together at the next ASNE conference and all agree to spell it one way? At this point, having a dictator doesn't sound all that bad.
But don't feel sorry for us. After all, it's rare that we can write about someone whose job security actually may be more tenuous than our own.