I Say Qaddafi, You Say Qathafi
1:18 PM, Aug 24, 2011 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
The apparent fall of the Qaddafi regime, and the likely capture (or killing) of the tyrant himself, will signal the end not only of four decades of internal repression and external terrorism, but one of the more vexing orthographic challenges in modern American journalism: the spelling of the colonel's surname.
Qaddafi's name, of course, is an Arab name, and the Arabic language has its own alphabet. But while a consensus was usually reached on comparable problems in spelling—"Khrushchev" from the Russian, "Mao" from the Chinese—there seems to be no single authority on the transliteration of Arabic, and so accounts of the Libyan dictator variously refer to Khadafy, Gathafi, Qathaffi, Gadafy, Kadafi, Qadhafi, and so on, ad infinitum—not to mention the question of whether the Arabic "el" or "al" prefix should be attached, or his first name is rendered as "Moammar," "Muammar," or "Mu'ammar." (For the record, my official English translation of The Green Book, published in Tripoli by the Public Establishment for Publishing, Advertising and Distribution, renders the author's name as Muammar Al Qathafi.)
Anyway, now that the colonel's reign will (hopefully) soon be in the past tense, we may assume that there will be, in due course, fewer references to him in the media, and that English-speaking scholars and historians may settle on one accepted version of his name. Indeed, the late Libyan regime offered more than one moniker of interest—former foreign minister Moussa Koussa, for example—but regrettably, in the annals of foreign affairs, the variety of diverting names continues to diminish. For example, not since the deaths of Lon Nol (1985), last Cambodian prime minister before the Khmer Rouge, and U Nu (1995), the longtime Burmese strongman, has a palindromic statesman graced the world stage. But as the Libyan rebels illustrate, there's always hope.