Read about the unrest in Libya and you might wonder: The man has been in power for 41 years, can't anyone spell his name? For a leader so notoriously mercurial, perhaps it's fitting no one can pin down Moammar Gadhafi's last name using the English alphabet. It's not just media organizations, even official Libyan government documents vary widely in rendering his name in Latin letters.
The Associated Press goes with Gadhafi. Why? It has to do with pronunciation — along with a series of letters the Libyan leader sent to American schoolchildren more than 25 years ago.
The spelling is complicated by a perfect storm of issues: Arabic letters or sounds that don't exist in English, differences in pronunciation between formal Arabic and dialects, and differences between transliteration systems.
Let's take it Arabic letter by Arabic letter:
His name's first letter is the Qaf, representing a sound that does not exist in English. It's sort of like a K but sounded from the back of the palate. (And no, it's NOT the rough "kh" or German "ch" sound — that's yet a different letter.)
Usually the Qaf is transliterated with a Q, as in Quran and Qatar and Iraq. An outdated but still seen transliteration is K, as in Koran.
But its pronunciation varies in different Arabic dialects. In Libya, it's often pronounced as a G, so that's the letter the AP and some others use.
The next letter is the Dhal. Its sound does exist in English, but not as one letter: In formal Arabic, the Dhal is pronounced like the soft "th" in "then" or "those." It's often transliterated as "dh," to distinguish it from a separate letter that's pronounced like the "th" in "thick" or "thorn."
In dialect, the Dhal is often pronounced by Libyans and other Arabs as either a D or a Z — much like in English dialects where you might say "doze guys." Thus some spell Gadhafi's name with a D or Z in the middle.
Just to complicate matters, the middle dhal in Gadhafi's name is doubled — in other words, you draw it out some in pronunciation. That's why you see Qazzafi, or Qaddafi, or the more bizarre looking Qadhdhafi or Qaththafi.
The third letter is a Fa, which is simply an F. In some spellings of Gadhafi's name, you see it doubled "ff" but there's no reason to do that. It may just be a snarky way to slip "daffy" into the eccentric Libyan leader's name.
The last letter is a Yaa, which is simply an "ee" sound, as in "tree." That's why you see either a Y or an I.
How does Gadhafi himself pronounce it? That's easy since he refers to himself in third person quite often. He tends to say "Gath-thafi" with the middle letter pronounced like the soft "th" in "either."
But writing it like that reads as if that middle letter is pronounced like the "th" in "ether" or "Matthew." So we use "dh." And if people read that as a D, that's fine because it's closer to correct than the wrong type of "th." Many Libyans pronounce it as a D.
And doubling the "dh" looks bizarre, without changing the pronunciation much, so we just write it once.
So that's where the AP spelling comes from. But it's only part of the story:
Flash back to 1986, a year that started out with the AP (and many others) spelling the Libyan leader's name Khadafy, based on the advice of Middle East experts. That changed when he sent letters to American schoolchildren, signed in Arabic script over his typed name: Colonel Moammar El-Gadhafi.
AP decided to drop the "El" — since at the time it was our style to not use the definite marker used in many Arab names — and went with Gadhafi.
The reason: AP's general policy is to spell names based on a person's preference. The letters to schoolchildren were believed to be the first time since Gadhafi took power in 1969 that he indicated in writing how he wanted his name spelled in Latin letters.
Keath, AP's Middle East Regional Enterprise Editor, has been based in Cairo since 2005.