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This name, which is spelled القذافي in Arabic, is spelled in so many different ways in the Latin alphabet:

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

Why are there so many ways of spelling it? Which one should be used in general usage?

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I got the list of spellings from here: and this recent blog entry on the topic is also enlightening: – nohat Feb 23 '11 at 4:10
if the answer boils down to "because there's lots of different ways to transliterate Arabic into Latin" my specific question would be: why is there this transliteration problem with Qaddafi when there isn't one with Sadat, Nasser, Mubarak, Ben Ali or indeed the former King Idris? – hawbsl Feb 23 '11 at 10:53
Given that this was already answered in the comments to the post you got the list from, what's the point of asking it here? – Peter Taylor Feb 23 '11 at 13:19
@Peter I think this question adds value to the site. See… – nohat Feb 23 '11 at 16:33
Never mind Qaddafi, what about the 256 names of... that Swedish guy? (^_^) – RegDwigнt Mar 29 '11 at 11:26

5 Answers 5

Well, good question. I hate to dump a Wikipedia answer on you, but the site does point us in an interesting direction:

In 1986, Gaddafi reportedly responded to a Minnesota school's letter in English using the spelling "Moammar El-Gadhafi".[106] The title of the homepage of reads "Welcome to the official site of Muammar Al Gathafi".[107]

The article also references The Straight Dope, a mainstay fact-finding and generally informative and entertaining column written by "Cecil Adams" for The Reader, my hometown's free weekly, which elaborates on the issue. In it we find this bit of corroborative information:

How Should We Spell Gadhafi?

Well, there's no real right answer. However, the Straight Dope provides some sound advice. It notes that it is a general rule of thumb that if there is doubt over how to spell a person's name, you simply use the version that the person in question uses. In this case, it's a bit tricky since Khadafi spells his name in Arabic.

However, the Straight Dope points out a strange incident that sheds some light on this issue. Back in May, 1986, Kadafi wrote a letter to a class of second-graders in St. Paul, Minnesota. Underneath his Arabic signature was typed "Moammar El-Gadhafi."

[Emphasis my own]

The Wikipedia article also notes the difficulty in standardizing Arabic names:

Because of the lack of standardization of transliterating written- and regionally-pronounced Arabic, Gaddafi's name has been transliterated in many different ways into English and other Latin alphabet languages. Even though the Arabic spelling of a word does not change, the pronunciation may vary in different varieties of Arabic, which may cause a different romanization. In literary Arabic the name معمر القذافي can be pronounced /muˈʕamːaru lqaðˈðaːfiː/. [ʕ] represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative (ع). Geminated consonants can be simplified. In Libyan Arabic, /q/ (ق) may be replaced with [ɡ] or [k] (or even [χ]; and /ð/ (ذ) (as "th" in "this") may be replaced with [d] or [t]. Vowel [u] often alternates with [o] in pronunciation. Thus, /muˈʕamːar alqaðˈðaːfiː/ is normally pronounced in Libyan Arabic [muˈʕæmːɑrˤ əlɡædˈdæːfi]. The definite article al- (ال) is often omitted.

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It is interesting that the author follows the advice from Straight Dope but not in the section in which the advice is mentioned, where Khadafi and Kadafi are used instead of Gadhafi – Inti Soto Feb 23 '11 at 3:38
@Inti Soto: True. I think Cecil Adams was having us on. His columns were always as funny as they were informative. – Robusto Feb 23 '11 at 3:51
It's silly to think of "Arabic" as one language. It's actually a family of languages connected by the canonical classical Arabic in which the Qur'an is written. Classical Arabic has a relatively restricted number of sounds (especially vowels) when compared to any of the Arabics on the ground. Modern Arabics are a lot like modern English in that the written representation of the language is only a poor approximation of the spoken language. – bye Feb 23 '11 at 4:58
I remember Doug Saunders also saying that he prefers Gadhafi. I asked him where he got that from, just to see if he knows other instances where he preferred Gadhafi. – Borror0 Feb 23 '11 at 7:15

It should be started with Q like Qatar:

Q قـ
Qazafi قذافی
Qatar قطر

I'm not sure about z/dh/th but doubt that it could be dd.


Iraq عراق
Quran قرآن
Qods(Jerusalem) قدس
Qiblah قبله

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Why should it be started with Q? As in, is there a reason it should start with a Q? – MrHen May 4 '11 at 17:57
@MrHen ق قـ in Arabic/Persian usually is spelled/pronounced in English as Q like beginning of قطر Qatar it can also be Gh. – Ali Shakiba May 4 '11 at 18:07
@JohnS: Ah, thank you. – MrHen May 4 '11 at 18:13
Just because it's spelt with a ق in Arabic doesn't mean it has to be spelt with a Q in English. That's the sort of argument that leads you to spell it Al-Qadhdhaafiyyu (القذّافیّ) which (while technically "accurate") is neither helpful to pronunciation, nor pretty :) The spellings with "G" more closely approximate the pronunciation of ق in Libyan Arabic, and are more consistent with what the man himself seems to use. – psmears May 4 '11 at 18:34
I wasn't trying to spell it as it's spelled and pronounced in Arabic, I was just using another similar famous word and how I have usually seen ق is spelled in English, and I don't know how Libyan Arabic is different from standard Arabic. Any way English doesn't have perfect match for Arabic ق (Gh/Q). But take it easy I'm sure you don't need to spell it Al-Qadhdhaafiyyu!!!! ;) – Ali Shakiba May 4 '11 at 19:11

I've seen this question in other venues too. The proper answer seems to be that the only "correct" way to spell it is to do it in Arabic.

There isn't a one-to-one mapping between Arabic glyphs and English ones. In fact, they don't even overlap very well at all. To make matters worse, English does not have a one-to-one mapping between its phonemes and its spelling.

So anybody translating a name between the two has little choice but to try to match phonemes between the two languages as best as possible (sometimes not at all). Then the poor slob has to arbitraily pick an English spelling for their phonemes.

The only way anybody doing all this could possibly say their result is the one and only correct one, would be if they are the holder of the name in question, and that's what they want others using.

Note that this same issue goes for any name from a language that doesn't use a Latin alphabet. Most Chineese folks I know just give up and use some short English nickname.

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In his Preface to ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, T E Lawrence robustly defends his inconsistencies in transliteration:

Arabic names won’t go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some ‘scientific systems’ of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a washout for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are.

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Now that he's dead, this question will gain prominence again. Here's one more link on the ways to spell, along with the explanation, why.

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Please don't just post links; it might break in the future. Instead, please include a summary of the link. – Hugo Oct 21 '11 at 10:59
@Hugo - In theory, all links might break in the future. Is there something you think is particularly fragile about this one, or are you going to be posting this comment every time someone links to wikipedia too? – T.E.D. Oct 21 '11 at 13:20
@T.E.D. Exactly, answers should be useful standalone answers, not links to another site which might break. Plain links to Wikipedia aren't very useful, we want the answer here and now, not go somewhere else to find it. See meta.SO and meta.ELU. – Hugo Oct 21 '11 at 13:35

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