Sunday, March 6, 2011


There I was yesterday morning, drinking my coffee and reading the latest about Libya in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Something was bothering me. And then it struck me. The two papers spelled the Libyan leader’s name differently. One started his last name with a “G” (the WSJ), the other with a “Q” (the NYT). Moreover, the Journal inserted an “h” into his name, the Times didn’t.  Gadhafi vs. Qaddafi.

The Times, of course, often has some differentiation, occasionally arcane, in its style manual. For example, in any article about Libya, the leader's first mention is different from later mentions. The first is always Muammar el-Qaddafi. Subsequent ones are Colonel Qaddafi. (With the latter name, you might say the Times got the el out of there).

Do other papers share this spelling inconsistency? I poked around a little, checking the Libyan leader’s spellings in a variety of other U.S. and foreign publications . It turns out there is very little agreement among them. Montreal (Gaddafi) differs from Toronto (Gadhafi). Germany (Gadhafi) differs from France (Kadhafi).

Surely there must be agreement among the Arab-speaking media? But no. Tripoli (Al Qathafi) differs from Al Jazeera (Gaddafi), and both differ from OPEC (El Qaddafi).

Only in Britain is there some spelling consistency, which strikes me as odd. Normally, the British papers aggressively go after each other tooth and nail, and rarely collaborate on anything. Yet here they are apparently having got together and agreed upon a common spelling. The BBC, Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Times, Independent – even Number 10 Downing Street -- are of one spelling (Gaddafi). Only the The Economist goes its own way (Qaddafi). But, then, The Economist often goes its own way.

Now here is either the most amusing or the most discouraging part of this story. Getting our foreign policy consistent among our various government departments and agencies is understandably difficult. Rare is the time that the President and State and the CIA are on the same page on policy. But why should it be so hard for them to agree upon a common spelling of one of the world’s really bad guys? Apparently it is. Otherwise, why would we read about the White House railing against Gaddafi when Sec. Clinton is threatening Qadahfi?  Meanwhile, the CIA World Factbook likes to refer to him as Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi?

And so far we’ve only been talking about his last name. As to his first name, you have a choice around the world of five spellings: Muammar, Mouammar, Moammar, Moammmer, and Moamer.

My guess is that instead of consulting the OED or Wikipedia or a library information desk (remember library information desks?), the media and governments around the world instead randomly combine the five first-name possibilities above with the eight last-name spellings --  Al Qathafi, Al-Qadhafi, El Qaddafi, Gaddafi, Gadhafi, Kadhafi, Qaddafi, Qadhafi. The result is 40 possible permutations of a first and last name. They then pick one of the 40 out of a hat, and that then becomes the name of the Libyan leader.

No wonder getting our foreign policy right is so tough. Maybe we should start with our spelling, and work up from there.

United States Press
Wall Street Journal – Moammar Gadhafi
New York Times - Muammar el-Qaddafi (first mention in article)
New York Times - Colonel Qaddafi (subsequent mentions)
New Yorker - Colonel Muammar Qaddafi
Washington Post - Moammar Gaddafi
Time - Muammar Gaddafi
Huffington Post - Moammar Gadhafi
Newsweek - Muammar Gaddafi
CNN - Moammar Gadhafi

United States Goverment
The White House - Muammar Gaddafi
State Department – Mr. Qadhafi
CIA World Factbook - Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi

United Nations
United Nations - Muammar Al-Qadhafi (first mention)
United Nations - Mr. Qadhafi (subsequent mentions)

Montreal Gazette - Muammar Gaddafi
Toronto Globe and Mail - Moammar Gadhafi

BBC - Col Muammar Gaddafi
Guardian - Muammar Gaddafi
Financial Times - Muammar Gaddafi
Telegraph - Muammar Gaddafi
Economist - Muammar Qaddafi
Independent - Muammar Gaddafi
Number 10 Downing St. - Col Gaddafi

Le Monde - colonel Mouammar Kadhafi
France Soir - Mouammar Kadhafi
Spiegel Online - Moammar Gadhafi

Middle East/Africa
OPEC - Colonel Moammer El Qaddafi.
Al Jazeera - Muammar Gaddafi        
The Tripoli Post - Muammar Al Qathafi
Gulf Times Qatar - Muammar Gaddafi’
Zaman Turkey - Muammar Gaddafi
Mail & Guardian South Africa - Muammar Gaddafi

The Australian - Moamer Kadhafi
The Times of India - Moamer Kadhafi


  1. Deborah CastlemanMarch 6, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    This is amazing -- you'd think that there would be some consistency (at least among the Western press)! You did some mighty fine sleuthing here, Ben... it is an interesting story in itself.

  2. Great work, cochim. Now could you tell us the proper transliteration for chocma? Or how to pronounce Qatar?

  3. Jack, Qatar, I'm told, is pronounced "gutter." No? Chocma is a chocolate malt. Cochim? No clue.

  4. Two of you have emailed me to ask why he's stayed colonel all these years. I don't know. I only do name, not rank or serial number.

  5. Now that William Safire has left us thank heaven you've taken up the banner. This is baffling, sad, and hilarious all in the same breath. Good work Sherlock!!!

  6. No wonder he always gets through immigration - they can't spell his name either. Brilliant piece.

  7. Ben, check out this infographic on name variations:

    Best, Karen

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