With Libya so often in the news these days, it probably has occurred to more than a few alert newspaper readers that there is no such thing as a “correct” spelling of the name of the North African country’s ruling dictator, Moammar Gadhafi.
Read five news accounts about the tyrant and the current insurrection aimed at sending him packing and you may find five different spellings of his surname as well as his given name. If the inconsistency tends to drive readers nuts, imagine what it does for purists on newspaper copy desks the world over.
The Bangor Daily News goes with “Moammar Gadhafi,” the spelling preferred by The Associated Press, CNN and MSNBC. According to a recent news story on The Christian Science Monitor’s website CSMonitor.com, The New York Times spells the dictator’s name “`Muammar el-Qaddafi.” At the Los Angeles Times it’s “Moammar Kadaf” while Reuters, the Manchester Guardian and the BBC use “Muammar Gaddaf” and the Irish Times likes “Muammar Gadhafy.” ABC News — which spells it “Moammar Gaddaf” — has reportedly 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,” reporter Eoin O’Carroll explained. “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.” Abandon all hope, ye who tiptoe through this particular minefield.
Part of the problem, according to O’Carroll, is that there is no universally accepted authority for proper spelling of Arabic names. Normally, news organizations use whatever spelling the subject prefers, but this particular newsmaker has apparently never stated a preference. O’Carroll notes that even the banner at the top of the official Gadahfi website routinely flirts with several different spellings of the site’s name, variations of the title “AL Gathafi.”
The situation is cousin to one that arises when the story concerns Qatar, the independent emirate on the Persian Gulf that is occasionally in the news. Pronunciation of that place name by television’s talking heads can range from “KAY-ter” and “kay-TAR” to “Cutter” and “Gutter” and beyond. As well, the town of Ghadames in northwestern Libya can also be spelled “Ghadamis.” Some other regional place names also have multiple spellings. On it goes.
Arabic spellings and pronunciations can be an adventure for many of us, to be sure. But the current March Madness that is the national collegiate basketball tournaments — men’s and women’s versions — serves to remind us that we don’t have to venture offshore to find such challenges.
There is, after all, a reason why Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski is often known in print and on radio and television as “Coach K,” and it’s really quite simple: The print guys can’t spell his name, and the on-air crowd can’t pronounce it. Or, if they can, not the same way twice.
The Duke coach’s surname — eight consonants and only two vowels in its 10 characters — brings to mind Mark Twain’s take on Eastern European surnames the popular author encountered while living abroad. “We shan’t ever learn how to spell them,” the old story teller lamented. “On paper they look like the alphabet out on a drunk.”
When sportswriters covering Duke’s games in the tournament use the coach’s name in their copy they can be pretty sure that many readers will not know whether the spelling is accurate, or hopelessly botched. The advantage is similar to that which might accrue to anyone writing about President Bmzklfrpz of Berzerkistan, the Gadhafi-esque character in Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” comic strip. Which is to say the writer might need only to be in the ballpark, multiple-consonant and arrangement-wise, for readers to cut him some slack.
When it comes to Moammar Gadhafi — Kaddafi — Qaddafi, reporters have it even better. Should their spelling fall in merely the same area code as something resembling “Gadhafi,” they can pass it off as simply one of the remaining few of the alleged 112 variations of the dictator’s name the public has not previously encountered.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.