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That Libyan strongman

Do not fret over the way you render the name of Libya’s longtime ruler. He Who Cannot Be Spelled has more variant transliterations from the Arabic than there are loopy anti-evolution measures pending in our state legislatures.

You can use Gadhafi, as the AP/Tribune/WSJ do; Qaddafi, after NYT; Khaddify, like NBC news; or your own fanciful concoction.

There are three things to keep in mind.

1. The lack of a universally accepted system of transliteration from Arabic makes multiple versions inevitable.

2. No matter which choice you make, no one is going to mistake whom you’re writing about, so just pick one and be consistent.

3. Once the armed people around him decide that, like Caligula, he is no longer of use to them, we will be able to stop writing about him altogether.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:20 PM | | Comments (10)


Caligula was only Emperor for four years, but He Whose Correct Spelling Is معمر القذافي‎ has held on for more than 41 years, alas.

How do you do that with your computer? I've always thought the Arabic script very graceful. How does it differ from Farsi? And how do you translate Patricia the Terse into Arabic?

Patricia -
via Google translate:
باتريشيا ومقتضب

I don't think that the Qaddafi son who used to be a soccer player did the family any favors when he was seen on television fretting because the current unrest meant that he was confined to Libya and couldn't indulge his hobby of going on safari. "I must go safari!"

Language Log discussed this in great detail a few weeks ago:

@Patricia: Look for "character maps" under "accessories" if you're using a Windows machine. Most of the fonts will have several non-Latin scripts. The different consonant forms can be a bit tricky.

Farsi uses the Arabic alphabet, but it has characters that Arabic doesn't. (Sort of like English not having an enye or the L-thing in "Walesa")

Okay, confession time. I don't know any Arabic. I can't even reliably tell one letter from another, or where they start or end, which I have no problem with in Greek or Cyrillic or Hebrew script. I simply copied and pasted from Wikipedia.

The only trick to that is that when you copy and paste right-to-left text, you need to start at the right-hand end and move the mouse leftwards while holding down the left mouse button, the opposite of the normal procedure. It took me a couple of tries to get it right.

(John, what's your editorly take on "copied and pasted"? As I wrote it above, "from Wikipedia" appears to apply to the pasting rather than the copying, contrary to logic. Maybe we should be writing "copy-and-paste" and the past tense as "copy-and-pasted"?)

To take another tack entirely, is it possible that you've inveighed in an earlier post against the cliche "strongman" in this context? If not, please inveigh accordingly. Every time I see it, I think of illustrations in old-fashioned children's books about the circus--you know, the big guy in leopard-skin tights who's heaving barbells around.

Farsi (or Persian) is an Indo-European language that uses the Arabic script for a number of complex religious and political reasons. There are a few extra characters to accommodate sounds Arabic doesn't have.

As the Libyan megalomaniacal, bordering-on-totally-bonkers "strongman",Gadhafi, today, continues to hunker down in his capital city of Tripoli while his government/ army thugs, and hired African mercenaries attempt to take back other cities throughout the country from the valiant, yet out-gunned rebels, I just have a few words to add to the discussion on how to spell this 'Moammar Demento's' last name. Here goes nothing.

You say tow/maw/toes,

i say tow/mate/ohs.

You say Gadhafi,

I say Kadhafi.

Tow/maw/toes, tow/mate/ohs

Gadhafi, Kadhafi,

Let's call the whole thing off!

Good riddance, to very bad rubbish. Period. End of story.


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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