How do you spell Gaddafi’s name?

February 25th, 2011  

One would think that the spelling of a guy who has been on the international stage for four decades would be easy to determine. Unfortunately, in Gaddafi’s case, no one seems to know how to spell his name. Shouldn’t a news organization be able to find out how his name is spelled in his passport, or by the Libyan government? Maybe he only spells his name in the Arabic script, so everyone else is left to do the english transliteration themselves.

Al-Jazeera uses the ‘Gaddafi‘ spelling, while the New York Times seems to consistently use ‘Qaddafi‘ as the spelling. If you look at Libyan news on Google News, you’ll see plenty of other spellings, including Gadhafi, Khadafy and Khadafi. If only there was a way to see what the general consensus on his name was so you didn’t have to rely on a single source. Fortunately, Google has been scanning and digitizing books for many years now and it’s possible to trace the occurrence of any word in a corpus of over 500 billion words using their Books Ngram viewer!

This is what we get if we plug in all the alternate spellings of Gaddafi’s name.

And the winner is… Qaddafi! So, the New York Times is using the accepted spelling, while ‘Gaddafi’ (the spelling that I always believed was the correct one) comes a distant second.

While we are at it, do you know how Gandhi is spelled? Most of time I see it spelled as Ghandi by westerners in forums and blog posts. Thankfully, Ngrams shows that the error does not extend to books.

I find it amazing that almost all the written knowledge of humanity will one day be available in digital form if the ambitious goals of projects like Google Books is realized. No longer will information be lost forever when libraries are burnt since all information that’s put online is replicated somewhere. One day, Artificial Intelligence will be able to parse all this information and appear to be as intelligent as any human. It’s very likely that if IBM’s Watson was given the word ‘Qaddafi’, it would’ve asked ‘What’s the correct spelling for the Libyan President’s name?’

EDIT: As many others have also pointed out, here’s Time magazine’s take on the linguistics behind the name.

10 Comments on “How do you spell Gaddafi’s name?”

  1. 1 Tweets that mention Doublespeak » How do you spell Gaddafi’s name? -- said at 7:49 am on February 25th, 2011:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hacker News YC, marcelobernard, m.y.ikegami_bot, Stueccles Flipboard, sshzms and others. sshzms said: Using Google Ngrams to figure out Gaddafi's correct spelling. […]

  2. 2 Jaco Pretorius said at 7:51 am on February 25th, 2011:

    His Arabic name is Muʿammar al-Qaḏḏāfī. His English name is Muammar al-Gaddafi.

  3. 3 ZeD said at 8:12 am on February 25th, 2011:

    the correct one is ‘Gheddafi’

  4. 4 m0skit0 said at 11:17 am on February 25th, 2011:

    No one is actually correct because english and all other occidental languages do not have the first consonant used on the name, ق. This consonant has no real equivalent in english (or any european language), so any similar consonant is actually correct (K, Q, G). In fact ق is a mix between K (or Q) and G. Try saying both at the same time 😉

    Anyway, very interesting method for finding correct spelling, nice article 🙂

  5. 5 Maha Sweis said at 12:54 pm on February 25th, 2011:


  6. 6 Maha Sweis said at 1:01 pm on February 25th, 2011:

    Qathaffi ….th as in the = ذ there is no d sound anywhere. the Q is closer to ق than k but in the local dialect they say ق as a G so you can argue that Gathaffi is proper too

  7. 7 Wilfred Weezil said at 1:09 pm on February 28th, 2011:

    One reason its frequently printed as Ghaddafi is because in Egypt the ق character is pronounced “Gh” even though it is more like a “Q” in classical arabic…

  8. 8 Bob said at 6:45 pm on March 3rd, 2011:

    I would spell it with the spanish translation. It would sound like this “shithead”

  9. 9 BigSoph said at 1:29 am on April 5th, 2011:

    It is spelled More and More Gone-Daffy!

  10. 10 Matt M. said at 4:28 pm on October 20th, 2011:

    I think the correct pronunciation is Dead.

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