As a despotic autocrat who ruled an oil-rich North African nation for decades, was a sponsor to terrorists, and single-handedly destroyed the civil institutions of an entire state, the name of the former Libyan dictator whose bloodied body was dragged out of a drainage pipe and is expected to be buried today will surely outlive him in historical infamy. The question is, which name?
Muammar Qaddafi (we'll stick to that for now) was an oddity among world leaders not just for his megolamaniac beliefs, choice in wardrobe and living quarters or all-female security detail, but also because he was the one head of state whose name in English no one knows exactly how to spell. The Associated Press, perhaps the closest thing there is to an institution whose practices set the standards for modern American English, spells it Moammar Gadhafi. Yet it seems even that venerable press corps has been unable to set the benchmark in this particular instance. A 2009 ABC News article found major media news outlets had spelled out his names in 112 different ways since 1998. The list contains nearly three times the number of names as it does queried sources, meaning that multiple news outlets were changing the way they spelled the leader's name with each new story mentioning him.
The reason for the confusion was multifold. The first, as explained in a Time Magazine blog post from earlier this year, has to do with the linguistic roots of two of the syllables in his name. Not only are they ambiguous when transliterated from Arabic into a latinized form, but they can vary depending on whether the translator takes into account their Libyan regional pronounciation. In the arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court earlier this year, he is listed as Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi
Several spellings have evolved as the most popular on the Internet. Moammar Gadhafi, the AP-style way, was the most popular search on Google mid-morning Wednesday. That spelling of his last name receives about one million global searches every month, according to information provided by the search engine, less than the 2.4 million monthly searches for Gaddafi but substantially more than the 201,000 for Kaddafi. Gaddafi was the most popular on AOL, with Gadafi and Kadafi also frequently searched.
Perhaps most interestingly is the fact that the very leader did not know (or at least did not attempt to standardize) his last name in English. In a famous 1986 letter to Minnesota second graders, he spelled his name as Moammar El-Gadhafi. However, his passport, discovered by rebels storming his compound, found the English version as Gathafi.