Spelling champion

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Gadafi, GadaffiGaddafiGaddaffiGadhafi, GadhaffiGhadafi, Ghadaffi, Ghaddafi, GhaddaffiGhadhafi, Ghadhaffi, Kadafi, Kadaffi, Kaddafi,   KadhafiKhadafi, Khaddafi, Khaddaffi, Khadhafi, Khadhaffi, Qadafi, Qadaffi, Qaddafi, Qaddaffi, Qadhafi, Qadhaffi, Qadhdhafi, Qathafi, … I give up.

The last hold-out for the Elizabethan approach to spelling. One of the few reasons that he'll be missed.

Update — see R.L.G. at the Economist's Johnson Blog for an exegesis


  1. Dev Thakur said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    I wonder what it is in Arabic, and why that cannot be transliterated?

    Sometimes that is not so easy, e.g. "u" and "o" can both be represented similarly, hence "Osama" vs "Usama."

    But aren't kaf and gaf different letters? What is the first letter when his name is spelled in Arabic? Etc.

  2. Dev Thakur said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    Just checked, based on Wikipedia, it's neither letter of course, it's the one usually transliterated as "q" so that's no help …

  3. Sam said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    You know what they say: Mo'ammar, mo' problems.

    (Sorry! but this might be my last chance to tell that joke!)

  4. Dan T. said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    There's also the Jewish holiday rendered variously as Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hanukah, Chanukah, Chanuka, Chanukka, Chanukkah, Hannukah, etc.; that also seems to have resisted the general tendency of English to insist on one "correct" spelling.

  5. Dan T. said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    (I seem to have written "Chanukah" twice in there… sorry.)

  6. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    Surely there cannot be enough different transliteration schemes that all of the above can directly derive from the same Arabic spelling (whatever that may be). It suggests to me that some other phenomenon is at work that is preventing us from settling on one or two dominant versions, as might otherwise be expected to happen. I was going to suggest Western media writers simply having fun with their spelling freedom, but that probably couldn't account for Hannukkah.

  7. Andrew Simpson said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    The name contains two sounds that have multiple reflexes in Arabic dialects and are not always easily rendered by English. The first sound in Standard Arabic is a voiceless uvular stop /q/. The voiced pronunciation [G] of /q/ is a characteristic of Bedouin dialects. /g/ is probably the sound closest to how his own people say it, /q/ is the conventional way of representing the Standard Arabic uvular stop, and /k/ is the closest English sound to the uvular stop. I am not sure why the /h/ is added in so many cases. This more commonly used for fricatives. The second sound is a voiced interdental fricative. However, it is more commonly realized as [d] or [z] in spoken varieties. Here /d/ is probably closest to how it is said, /dh/ is a conventionalized way of representing the Standard Arabic sound, and /th/ is the closest way of representing the Standard Arabic sound in normal English orthography.

  8. Sam said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    This just happens to have been the subject of a great Straight Dope column from 1986: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/513/how-are-you-supposed-to-spell-muammar-gaddafi-khadafy-qadhafi

  9. NW said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    The standard transcription of his name would be Qaddhafi. The middle consonant is a geminate dental fricative; the next two vowels are long. I presume that in Libyan, the Standard Arabic /q/ is pronounced [g]. There's no excuse for most of the transcriptions.

  10. cata said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    Related: http://www.metafilter.com/100759/Unrest-in-Libya#3533835

    "I hope programmers worldwide will join me in calling for M[ou]'?am+[ae]r .*([AEae]l[- ])? [GKQ]h?[aeu]+([dtz][dhz]?)+af[iy] to step down."

  11. John Cowan said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    Here's what the Library of Congress's name authority record says (the first one is the one they have standardized on):

    Qaddafi, Muammar
    Gadhafi, Moʼammar
    Kaddafi, Muammar
    Qadhafi, Muammar
    El Kadhafi, Moammar
    Kadhafi, Moammar
    Moammar Kadhafi
    Gadafi, Muammar
    Muʼammar al-Qadafi
    Moamer El Kazzafi
    Moamar al-Gaddafi
    Muʼammar Al Qathafi
    Moʼammar el-Gadhafi
    Muammar Kaddafi
    Moamar El Kadhafi
    Muammar al-Qadhafi
    Muʻammar al-Qadhdhāfī <– this one is the most precise transliteration
    Qadafi, Muʼammar
    El Kazzafi, Moamer
    Gaddafi, Moamar
    Al Qathafi, Muʼammar
    Qadhdhāfī, Muʻammar
    Khaddafi, Muammar
    Muammar al-Khaddafi
    Muʻamar al-Ḳad’afi
    Ḳad’afi, Muʻamar al-
    Ghaddafy, Muammar
    Ghadafi, Muammar
    Ghaddafi, Muammar
    Kaddafi, Muamar
    Quathafi, Muammar
    Gheddafi, Muammar
    Muammar Ghaddafy
    Muammar Ghadafi
    Muammar Ghaddafi
    Muamar Al-Kaddafi
    Muammar Quathafi
    Muammar Gheddafi
    Khadafy, Moammar
    Qudhafi, Moammar
    Qathafi, Mu’Ammar el
    El Qathafi, Mu’Ammar
    Kadaffi, Momar
    El Gaddafi, Moamar
    Moamar el Gaddafi
    Kazzafi, Moammar
    Gheddafi, Muhammar
    al-Qadhafi, Muammar
    Muammar Al-Gathafi
    Al-Gathafi, Muammar
    Gathafi, Muammar
    Kadhafi, Mouammar
    Al Gathafi, M.
    Gathafi, M. Al
    القذافي معمر
    ضذافي، معمر
    قدافي، معمر
    قدف، معمر
    قذافى، معمر
    قذافي، مؤامر
    قذافي، معمد
    معمر القذافي

  12. Eli said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    In English, there is no way of transcribing a uvular stop or a voiced interdental fricative (contrastive to the voiceless), which this name contains. The most popular options I've seen (and the UN system) is for the former and for the latter. The second problem is that the interdental fricative is a geminate, which would normally be represented by a doubled character, but since is a digraph, "Qadhdhafi" just looks funny. So it's lose-lose.

  13. Paul Clapham said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    When I was a math student there was a story that Chebyshev's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pafnuty_Chebyshev) name had been spelled in 24 different ways by people citing his work. I don't know if that's true and I can't track down anything specific on the web, but it appears that Chebyshev is no longer the spelling champion.

  14. Adrianne Truett said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    Then again, he's apparently (like Shakespeare and others) used several different spellings when writing his own name in English communications, so, even arguing for self-determination, there's no one answer.

  15. Bob Newhart said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    It's actually spelled "Jocelyn Wildenstein."

  16. mollymooly said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    The Irish Times has taken flak for persisting with "Gadafy". Complainers accept that the set of accepted English transcriptions is large, but not that it includes "Gadafy". Personally, I like its retro vibe.

  17. GeorgeW said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    The /q/ (voiceless uvular stop) in his name is not only problematic for English speakers, but it is for Arabs as well. I don't think any of the dialects realize it regularly as in Standard Arabic (i.e. /q/). It can be realized as /g/, /k/ or /?/ (glottal stop) according to the dialect. How it is said in a Libyan dialect, I don't know.

    Many (most?) of the dialects do not have dental fricatives (voiced or voiceless). But, exceptions are sometimes made for proper names. So, the question would be, what does he say for the middle consonant (voiced dental fricative)? English speakers should have no problem with it either way. And, it could be transcribed as /th/ like in 'that,' which is in none of the alternatives mentioned.

    There is a long vowel in the second syllable which would attract stress in Arabic. So, maybe by doubling the English transliteration Ga.DDA.fi this might signal that this syllable is to be stressed.

  18. Frances said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

    #Gadafi is trending on Twitter, does that help settle it?

  19. fev said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    FWIW/IIRC/LSMFT, the AP's choice of "Gadhafi" dates to the US air raid of 1986, after which the colonel wrote letters to some American schoolchildren; "Gadhafi" was typed in English under his signature.

    The author of the AP story explaining all that was Chris French, also the editor of that year's update of the AP Stylebook, known for some of the more bizarre pronouncements in AP style history.

  20. GeorgeW said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    Frances: Is it the man himself or one of the enemies of the Libyan people – Islamists, tribes, European colonialists, Americans, criminals, Egyptians, Tunisians, uh, who did I miss? Any of those might try to distort his name while taking over the country.

  21. GeorgeW said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    fev: Then, 'Gadhafi' it should be. He should have a right to the spelling of his name (but, not the wealth of the country).

  22. Tim Friese said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

    Standard Arabic /q/ is realized as [q] in all dialects in the case of borrowings from Standard Arabic, in quintessentially Standard words like [istiqlaal] "independence" and [istaqaala] "resigned".
    As far as [q] being the primary reflex of Standard /q/ in an Arabic dialect, the only dialects I'm aware of are some villages of northern Israel and the West Bank along with (parts?) of the Golan, both on the Israeli and Syrian side. Syrians say this is particularly used by Druze.
    As a note of interest, there are also villages in the same region of Israel / Palestine and Syria where speakers use a clear [k] for this phoneme!

  23. Andrew Bayles said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    I once had a phrasebook for Levantine Arabic that said it best: "Systems of transcription vary only in degrees of repulsiveness." Of course, the ISO has a satisfactory standard transcription of Muʿammar al-Qaḏḏāfī that does a good job reflecting the actual characters used in Arabic, but if he pronounces his name like most Bedouins from Sirt, 'Gaddafi' would be a more correct transcription, since MSA /q/ is realized in Bedouin dialects as [g] and /ð/ is usually merged with [d].

  24. Sili said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    It's actually spelled "Jocelyn Wildenstein."

    And pronounced " Throat-Warbler Mangrove"?

    Many moons ago the Danish comedy trio Linje 3 used the names of various dictators as a basis for a percussive solo. "GadaffiGadaffiGadaffi" was the fast repetitions on the toms (I think). The big finale on the cymbals was "Deng! Xiao! Ping!"

  25. Rubrick said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

    Saturday Night Live hit this topic 30-odd years ago, in a Weekend Update segment in which varioius spellings of the Colonel's name scrolled down the screen, including such spellings as "Atari".

  26. GeorgeW said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

    Tim Friese: 'Standard Arabic /q/ is realized as [q] in all dialects in the case of borrowings from Standard Arabic, in quintessentially Standard words like [istiqlaal] "independence" and [istaqaala] "resigned".

    Sorry, but that is just not right. In some dialects, like Cairene, it is realized as /?/ (glottal stop) in the many Arabic origin words, and with very few exceptions (like Qur'an and Qaamus). Upper Egypt, it is commonly /g/.

    Holes ("Modern Arabic Structures, Functions, and Varieties,' p.81-85) discusses this. He says, among other things, "Today, as a voiceless uvular stop, it exists in relatively few places – in northern Iraq, parts of Oman, Yemen and North Africa . . . it became variously /?/ in the big cities of the east, /g/ among the nomads, and /k/ in rural areas. He goes on and discusses the variation in more detail. In
    If you would like, I can provide you some other sources that discuss some interesting sociolinguistic variation of this segment in Jordan.

  27. PurpleCar said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

    The SEO on this post is probably SICK.

  28. A Reader said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    Along the lines of Frances' comment, the Christian Science Monitor has a reasonably interesting article on the subject making the point that different versions of the name yield different Google results. I tried this, and it does seem to be so (though some variants give almost identical results). I don't know how much of a difference this actually makes, but there certainly is at least the possibility that 'How you choose to spell it determines what news you get.'

    For what it's worth, Google seems to have 'Gaddafi' as its preferred version, and prompted this for all the variants I tried- so there is an element of normalization from that.

    The CSM story is here: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/2011/0222/Gaddafi-Kadafi-Qaddafi-What-s-the-correct-spelling

  29. Uri Horesh said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

    Probably the most interesting factoid about Libyan Arabic is that it is both a Maghribi dialect of Arabic (i.e., a dialect of the western part of the Arab World, which begins somewhere in the western desert of Egypt and ends in the northwestern Atlantic coast of Africa) and a Bedouin one (which nowadays does not necessarily imply nomadic dwelling, but more a non-urban, tribal societal structure).

    These two traits shape the dialect, mostly in its phonology and morphology. For our purpose, as mentioned above, the Classical Arabic /q/ ق is pronounced voiced, [g] or a somewhat uvularized version thereof, and the CA /ð/ ذ is typically preserved as an interdental fricative.

    So it seems as if up until a few years ago, most Western transliterations of his name were more in line with Classical/Modern Standard Arabic, whereas recently there has been a shift toward the dialectal form.

    His "speech" today, btw, was an interesting sociolinguistic experiment. Unlike Tunisia's Ben Ali, who spoke entirely in the urban Tunisian dialect, and Mubarak's recent speeches, which were carefully crafted in MSA, Gaðða:fi (not sure about the vowel length; North African dialects tend to shorten most long vowels) was more "natural" in that he did the common politico-linguistic combo, that would be widely understood around the Arab World.

    I, for instance, tuned in this afternoon to Al-Jazeera English rather than to the Arabic channel, because I feared I wouldn't understand G's North African dialect. What I did not take into account was the Bedouin nature of Libyan Arabic, which made it much clearer to my Mashriqi- (Eastern Arab World) attuned ears.

    Ironically, Sayf al-Isla:m, Mu‘ammar's son, gave a speech the other day in which he clarified that unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's society was structured not as towns and cities, but as tribes. His intention was to demonstrate that what worked politically in Libya's neighbors will not work in Libya itself. His political theorizing may not hold water – this we shall see – but his words are definitely relevant to the sociolinguistic classification of the Libyan dialect.

  30. Nick said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

    So Boston.com / The Boston Globe seems to use "Khadafy" in its own articles (there's a headline on the home page right now) but when they simply pipe in articles from the AP, it's still Gadhafi. This seems a little sloppy but also a prime example (as if ML's original post wasn't enough) of how un-standardized his name is. It's also a little sloppy.

  31. Licia said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    Is Italian the only language that consistently spells it with an e, Gheddafi?

    [re-entering as previous similar comment disappeared]

  32. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 10:59 pm

    As many and varied are the spellings of his name, his sartorial guises are even more numerous and outlandish:

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 1:07 am

    @GeorgeW: I suspect the double-f versions are attempts to get people to accent the second syllable, based on Dorsett's Principle: In words they don't know, Americans (and other English speakers?) like to accent the vowel before a double letter. I've gone wrong this way myself.

    Even farther-fetched: The "Kh" versions are misrememberings of "dh" versions.

  34. Dhananjay said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 6:04 am

    @Jerry Friedman: "Even farther-fetched: The "Kh" versions are misrememberings of "dh" versions."

    That's hardly far-fetched given how often even educated Americans (this seems to be a purely American vice) spell the Indian leader's name "Ghandi" rather than "Gandhi". When the 'h' is doing no contrastive work in one's pronunciation, it's just ornamentation.

  35. GeorgeW said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 7:06 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I am not familiar with "Dorsett's Principle."

    According Cook ("The English Writing System"), doubled consonants are used chiefly to show that the preceding vowel is "checked" (roughly lax) vs. "free" (roughly tense) similar to the "silent e." She gives examples like dinner/diner.

    However, I suspect that it may also influence the stress, but I haven't thought this through.

  36. Laura said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 7:34 am

    @GeorgeW: Not a criticism, as it's an easy mistake to make, just a heads-up: Vivian Cook's a chap. At least he was last time I saw him.

  37. GeorgeW said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    Laura: Whoops. Thanks for the heads up.

  38. Peter Taylor said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 8:28 am

    @Frances, it makes sense that twitterers would pick the shortest intelligible transliteration, so it doesn't really tell us much about how they would spell it in less space-constrained media.

  39. [links] Link salad contemplates the shores of Tripoli | jlake.com said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    […] Language Log on spelling the name of Libya's leader — And The Straight Dope's classic column on the same topic. […]

  40. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    @GeorgeW: Sorry, an attempt at humor. Tony Dorsett was an excellent player of American football in the late '70s and the '80s. Early in his career he changed the pronunciation of his surname to be accented on the second syllable. At one point he said it had to do with a family belief that the name was of French origin, but here he said it was just a gimmick. (I remembered him specifically saying the change had to do with the double t, but I can't find that on line.)

    (I hope the links work.)

  41. Dan T. said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    @GeorgeW/Laura: The Vivian Cook matter raises a point I've sometimes thought about myself: Let's say you encounter the name of somebody you're not greatly familiar with, in a context of literary/academic/intellectual pursuits, and their first name is one that is typically female, at least in current-day Anglophone society. What, then, is the probability distribution of what gender the person involved actually is? There, you run into the institutionalized sexism that leads a higher proportion of people in such circles being male, along with the fact that in earlier eras some current-day mostly-female names (like "Kim") were common male names (and people whose names come up in literary/academic/intellectual contexts are often of earlier generations), and in some foreign cultures/languages name usage is different ("Kim" is an entirely different name in Korean).

  42. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    I note that all of these variants in myl's list at least uniformly end in -fi. The house style of the New York Post is "Khadafy," and I can't imagine they're the only ones who substitute -y for -i (as some of the other lists in the comments show). Consistency of penultimate "f" looks good, though.

  43. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    @GeorgeW again: I wasn't saying that double consonant letters in English are actually correlated with an accent on the previous vowel. I was saying that I think Americans confronted with an unfamiliar are likely to accent the vowel before a double consonant. I have very little evidence.

    By the way, I must have made some mistake in one of the links in my previous post. The text "At one point he said" isn't highlighted for me either at home or at work, but if you mouse over it, you'll see it's a link to a newspaper article.

    @DananjhayDhananjay: Gandhi! Thanks, I knew I was thinking of some name where the "h" often got misplaced that way, but it was buried in what I like to call my brain.

  44. GeorgeW said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Sorry, I missed the subtle humor. I do remember Tony Dorsette but I forget the spelling change. Frenchification by duplication does cause the stress to shift to the last syllable. I think the same is true of Gabriel and Gabrielle.

  45. Troy S. said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    Elizabethan approach, eh? Well, here's my attempt at something a little more Middle-English looking (and more phonetically accurate!): ȜæÞafy Any takers?

  46. Rodger C said,

    February 24, 2011 @ 8:45 am

    @Dhananjay: I suspect this has been affacted by the fact that gh is common in English and dh is rare. That doesn't explain why it's an American vice, except I suppose that he's not a figure in our history.

  47. Sarah C. said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    Various languages' transliteration of foreign words is interesting and can be humorous. Other examples other than Gadafi/Qadafi/Khaddafi, etc., is the spelling of Putin (Путин in Russian) – in France, they spell the name "Poutine," which is pronounced the same as the English "Putin". "Putin" in French is pronounced the same as the French word "putain", which is a curse word and also is slang for 'prostitute.' Another one is the ethnic Arab last name that in English would probably be written "Musawi" while in French is is written "Moussaoui."

  48. Ellie Presner said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    Re "Gadafi, Gadaffi, Gaddafi, Gaddaffi, Gadhafi, Gadhaffi, Ghadafi, Ghadaffi, Ghaddafi, Ghaddaffi, Ghadhafi, Ghadhaffi, Kadafi, Kadaffi, Kaddafi, Kadhafi, Khadafi, Khaddafi, Khaddaffi, Khadhafi, Khadhaffi, Qadafi, Qadaffi, Qaddafi, Qaddaffi, Qadhafi, Qadhaffi, Qadhdhafi, Qathafi, … I give up."

    Reminds me of Hanukah, Hanukkah, Hannukah, Hanuka, Hannuka, Hanukka, Chanukah, Channukah, Chanukka, Chanukkah, Chanuka, Chhhhhhhannnnnnnnukkkkkkahhhhhh etc.!

  49. Ellen K. said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

    Yesterday, because I had nothing better to do and was thinking about it, I systematically looked at the different ways to spell Gadafi. Or, rather, the different ways to spell each letter/sound.

    G, K, Q, Gh, Kh, Qh
    a, e, u, uh
    d, dd, dh, ddh, dhdh,t, tt, th, tth, thth
    a, ah
    f, ff, ph
    i, y, ee, ie, ey.

    Pick one from each line, and you get 1000s of possibilities. I did verify each of those variations as being used in writing his name and being caught at it by Google. Of course, not all of those variations have been used in news sources writing the name.

    [(myl) If those are all and only the options, then he's a man with 6*4*10*2*3*5 = 7,200 names.]

  50. Bryan said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    Reminds me of an episode of the West Wing. One of the characters called up the New York Times to complain that they had spelled Gadafi's name incorrectly in the crossword puzzle…..

  51. Tom said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    Good work, Ellen. I plan to start writing Qhuhdhdhahphi.

  52. Apologists | Kill Ten Rats said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 8:36 pm

    […] on four lag-free servers and maybe you should stop buying K-Mart blue light special computers. When Qaddafi says there are no problems in Libya, I get the motives and delusions in play, but is there some […]

  53. Mark S. said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

    From the Wall Street Journal:


    International banks, acting on government orders to freeze assets from Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, are scouring hundreds of millions of client files for individuals on the new watch lists. But in doing so, bank compliance officers are grappling with a peculiar challenge: the myriad ways of transliterating Arabic names.

    The arcane problem is opening the door to niche players, including a unicycling polyglot, who promise to help banks ensure they don't miss anyone because of misspelled names.

    The pressure is high, with banks fearful of falling afoul of justice officials. "While [Arabic transliteration] has always been a concern, it's become more of a challenge given recent events," said Vasilios Chrisos, a top U.S.-based compliance officer at Australian bank Macquarie Group Ltd.

    For banks, identifying and closing accounts of officials or individuals on sanctions list is, in the best of circumstances, difficult. Accounts can be held via offshore trusts. Individuals can try to conceal links to an account by using a front man.

    Compounding things, for individuals with Arabic names, sanctions lists provide only a few alternate spellings. The U.S. Treasury Department offers 12 possible spellings for Moammar Gadhafi, though language experts say there are more than 100 for the family name alone….


    from Arabic Names Spell Trouble for Banks.

    The article comes with a chart with some Qaddafi spellings.

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