A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How are you supposed to spell Muammar Gaddafi/Khadafy/Qadhafi?

June 20, 1986

Dear Cecil:

Does anyone know how to spell the "mad dog's" name? Time spells it Muammar Gaddafi, the TV stations spell it Moammar Khaddafi, and my roommate tells me she's seen it spelled Qaddafi. Now all of a sudden there's a rush to start spelling it Gadhafi. What's the deal?

Cecil replies:

Lord knows I hate to be critical, but the proliferation of spellings for the name of Libya's head dude has been one of the continuing scandals of American journalism. I mean, come on, we're trying to plumb this guy's psychic depths and we can't even get his name straight? Sometimes I shudder for the future of my country.

I count at least 12 different ways to spell the colonel's handle, including Qaddhafi (New York Review of Books), Qaddafi (New Republic), Gaddafi (Time), Kaddafi (Newsweek), Khadafy (Maclean's), Qadhafi (U.S. News & World Report), Qadaffi (Business Week), and Gadaffi (World Press Review). Libya's UN mission, in an effort to spread further confusion, spells the name Qathafi, and I know I've seen Gadaafi somewhere. To make matters worse, the Library of Congress and the Middle East Studies Association, to whom one would ordinarily look for guidance, have a fondness for Qadhdhafi, which is an abomination unto God. I think you now begin to grasp the dimensions of the problem.

Some publications have used several spellings over the years; unfortunately, the result has not been a stylistic convergence, but rather a prolongation of the dismal status quo. In 1973 Business Week started out with Qadafi, which had the advantage of simplicity, at least; unfortunately, almost no one else used it, and BW sheepishly changed to Qadaffi. As of December 30, 1985, the usually punctilious New Yorker was spelling it Khadafy; by January 20, 1986, this had inexplicably morphed into Qaddafi. The Wall Street Journal initially used Qaddhafi, but now has shifted to Qadhafi. My personal feeling is to chuck all the preceding and just call him Poohead, which is easier to remember and has an undeniable evocative power as well. But to each his own.

Things are only slightly less muddled with Mr. K's (or Mr. Q's or Mr. G's, as you prefer) first name. Biz Week originally had it as Muammer, and the New Yorker used to say Moammar, but now both have changed to Muammar. For a while, in fact, it seemed that Muammar (sometimes written Mu'ammar, but let's not get picky) might become the standard — until the Desert Fox himself threw a monkey wrench into things, as he is wont to do. But more on this anon.

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.

In most cases where there is doubt about how to spell somebody's name, the usual journalistic practice is to accept the preference of the namee. For many years, however, the Mummer was too busy promoting global chaos to devote much time to the niceties of orthography. That changed in May, 1986, when he responded to a letter from some second-graders at Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul, Minnesota. The colonel signed the letter in Arabic script, beneath which was typed "Moammar El-Gadhafi." This was the first known indication of his own feelings on the subject, and the wire services and many newspapers promptly announced they would switch. But Time and the New York Times remain holdouts — which is typical, if you ask me. Someday, I swear, we gotta get organized.

The federal government would like to have a word

Dear Cecil:

You are usually right on the money with your answers to a variety of interesting questions. But I have to take exception to your remarks concerning the spelling of Muammar Qaddafi. You stated that the Library of Congress is fond of the spelling Qadhdhafi, "which is an abomination." It is indeed an abominable spelling, but the Library of Congress has no special fondness for it. Rather, as the enclosed Name Authority Record indicates, the Library has chosen the spelling Muammar Qaddafi. To be sure, the Name Authority Record shows many variants, of which Qadhdhafi is one. However, for cataloguing and retrieval purposes the Library uses the spelling at the top of the Authority Record regardless of what variant may appear on the title page of the work being catalogued. For example, if you were to write several more books alternately calling yourself C. Adams, C.A. Adams, C. Adams Sr. or Cecil Adams, BA, MA, PhD, all of your works would be catalogued with the authoritative heading as established by the Library's Descriptive Cataloguing divisions — most likely Cecil Adams.

I don't think I have ever come across a Name Authority Record with so many variant (read: unofficial) references as this one. Shakespeare, Lenin, and Tolstoy have as many because their works have been translated into so many languages. Is it Lev Tolsztoj, L.N. Tolstoi, Lyof Tolstoi or Lav Nikolajevic Tolstoj? The Library has settled, you may argue arbitrarily, on Leo Tolstoy as its standardized form.

I have read your book The Straight Dope and found it highly entertaining and informative. I look forward to many more collections of your best columns.

Cecil replies:

I'm glad you folks at the L. of C. are beginning to study the Straight Dope so attentively, Mike. Maybe next I'll make it onto the Prez's morning news digest and we can really get this country straightened out.

Sorry if I unjustly accused you on the Qadhdhafi business, but you know how dealing with this guy can cloud the mind. For the record, here's the official Library of Congress rundown on how to spell ol' whatsisname: (1) Muammar Qaddafi, (2) Mo'ammar Gadhafi, (3) Muammar Kaddafi, (4) Muammar Qadhafi, (5) Moammar El Kadhafi, (6) Muammar Gadafi, (7) Mu'ammar al-Qadafi, (8) Moamer El Kazzafi, (9) Moamar al-Gaddafi, (10) Mu'ammar Al Qathafi, (11) Muammar Al Qathafi, (12) Mo'ammar el-Gadhafi, (13) Moamar El Kadhafi, (14) Muammar al-Qadhafi, (15) Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, (16) Mu'ammar Qadafi, (17) Moamar Gaddafi, (18) Mu'ammar Qadhdhafi, (19) Muammar Khaddafi, (20) Muammar al-Khaddafi, (21) Mu'amar al-Kadafi, (22) Muammar Ghaddafy, (23) Muammar Ghadafi, (24) Muammar Ghaddafi, (25) Muamar Kaddafi, (26) Muammar Quathafi, (27) Muammar Gheddafi, (28) Muamar Al-Kaddafi, (29) Moammar Khadafy, (30) Moammar Qudhafi, (31) Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi, (32) Mulazim Awwal Mu'ammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi.

I mean, hey, are we talking a major campaign of Libyan disinformation here or what? Well, I'm not going to fall for it. I say we just call him Duckbreath. It's short, it's easy to spell, and Lord knows it satisfies the soul.

A postscript

To the Teeming Millions:

I just found out that you-know-who's official title is "Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Arab Libyan Popular and Socialist Jamahirya." Just in case you were thinking of dropping him a line.

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