The Straight Dope
Every time the name of former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi hits print, readers are left scratching their heads: Why can’t any two publications agree on how to spell the now deceased dictator’s name? (Poynter, incidentally, follows AP style.) Way back in the 20th century — June 20, 1986, to be exact — alternative newspaper syndicated columnist Cecil Adams was asked the same question. His answer?
“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.”
At the time, Adams easily found a dozen spellings: 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). “The Library of Congress and the Middle East Studies Association,” he added, “have a fondness for Qadhdhafi.” Explaining the disparity, according to Adams, are several factors:
“(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… 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.”
Despite Gaddafi weighing in on this, many news organizations ultimately did not follow his preference. Obviously.