Rebel Discovers Qaddafi Passport, Real Spelling of Leader's Name

Video of Mohammed Qaddafi's diplomatic passport reveals a surprising spelling

qaddafi passport p.jpg

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As Libyans flood Muammar Qaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya military compound in Tripoli, they're making a number of interesting finds. Most recent is what appears to be the diplomatic passport of eldest son Mohammed Qaddafi. Video of someone leafing through the passport reveals an interesting discovery: the spelling of Qaddafi's name. A much-circulated 2009 ABCNews.com story found 112 different ways to render the Libyan leader's last name in the Latin alphabet, used in English and most other Western European languages. But, according to this passport, and presumably the Libyan man himself, the accurate Latinized spelling is one of the least commonly used of those 112: Gathafi. (The passport also shows Mohammed's title as "Son of the Leader of the Revolution," a reference to his father's preferred title as head of state.)

The proper spelling of the Libyan leader's name has long been a source of banter and argument among Western journalists and editors. Debates over the most accurate spelling of his name are so common that they were once featured in an episode of the TV series The West Wing. Some hobbyist linguists have even parsed the multiple spellings into computer code and a handy chart.

Seemingly every publication holds its own interpretations of how to best translate the name. The Los Angeles Times calls him "Kadafi," the Washington Post "Gaddafi," and the U.S. State Department "Qadhafi." In March, a Denver-based blog caught the Denver Post using three different spellings in as many weeks. TheAtlantic.com International Channel uses "Qaddafi," as does the New York Times, because the letter Q is typically used to render the glottal stop that is so common in Arabic and that begins Qaddafi's name. TheAtlantic.com International Channel has never really understood why some publications add an H to the name.

Part of the reason his name's spelling has remained so unclear is that Muammar Qaddafi has long refused to use any language other than Arabic in public, despite pervasive rumors that he is fluent in English and Italian. But while Qaddafi could conduct international diplomacy without using English, consular bureaucracy is far less accommodating. A diplomatic passport requires Latinized text, something even the self-described "King of African Kings" could not get around. But he could keep it secret, or at least until now.

Although the leader's family (and presumably the leader himself) seems to have preferred Gathafi, TheAtlantic.com International Channel will stick to its style of "Qaddafi" for reasons of consistency until such point as Muammar Qaddafi specifically requests otherwise in a letter to the editor -- preferably one with a return address.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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