Gaddafi, Kadafi or Qaddafi? Why Is the Libyan Leader’s Name Spelled So Many Different Ways?

Traffic sign pointing to Tripoli, Libya.

Take a look at any news source today and you’ll see the name of Libya’s de facto leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi. Look a little closer and you’ll see a multitude of spellings for the notorious politician’s surname such as Gaddafi, Kadafi and Qaddafi. Why does a name that has been making headlines for decades have so many varied spellings?

Transliteration – the transcription of a word, or in this case a name, into corresponding letters of another alphabet – is the reason. The Arabic script is oftentimes unvocalized – in other words the vowels are rarely written out and must be furnished by a reader familiar with the language. As with Chinese and Hindi, the Arabic script contains a copious amount of diacritics – dots and accents added to a letter to change the sound. In addition, there seems to be an absence of any sort of authority for transliterating Arabic names.

The Arabic language is one of the most widely spoken Semitic languages in the world and the pronunciation of words varies with different across regions. Even among Arabic speakers, Arabic of North Africa is often incomprehensible to an Arabic speaker from the Gulf Region.

A famous roadblock for any Arabic to English translator is the Arabic q. Depending on the region, pronunciation varies so much that the first letter of Gaddafi can be replaced with a q, k or gh sound. This helps to explain the numerous interpretations for Gaddafi.

The variation of spelling may depend on what news source you choose to gather your information from. The Associated Press and CNN favor Gadhafi, the New York Times spells it el-Qaddafi and the Los Angeles Times uses Kadafi. Interestingly, Al Jazeera, which uses Gaddafi, does not use the el article in the name while the New York Times does.

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  1. Corrección del manuscrito | ¿Y que paso luego? -  April 3, 2013 - 11:35 pm

    [...] de otras lenguas y sobre los que no hay un consenso común sobre como traducir (¿Se acuerdan de la controversia sobre como se escribía el nombre de Muammar al-Gaddafi?). También se necesitan criterios bien definidos sobre las abreviaturas, siglas, acrónimos y [...]

  2. Luis -  October 27, 2011 - 9:25 am


    What makes him a politician?

    Politician – noun
    1. a person who is active in party politics.

    2. a seeker or holder of public office, who is more concerned about winning favor or retaining power than about maintaining principles.

    3. a person who holds a political office.

    4.a person skilled in political government or administration; statesman or stateswoman.

    5. an expert in politics or political government.

    6. a person who seeks to gain power or advancement within an organization in ways that are generally disapproved.
    In what universe do you live in?

  3. Craig -  October 21, 2011 - 12:59 pm

    Does it even matter much?

  4. Carl -  October 21, 2011 - 12:52 pm

    Why not just call him “Daffy” to avoid confusion? It’s a good nickname, and has a nice ring to it….

  5. Vikhaari -  October 21, 2011 - 12:43 pm

    Yet another interesting and informative article.

  6. TOMUNC -  October 21, 2011 - 12:07 pm

    Personally, when attempting to claim Arabic spellings for myself I would be more inclined to follow the lead of Al Jazeera than say The New York Times.

  7. Xavier -  October 21, 2011 - 9:42 am

    I think that ammar attar’s explanation made the most sense.

  8. Ed -  October 21, 2011 - 7:22 am

    Saman F, there is no Persia anymore. Please correct that.

  9. Khouloud -  October 21, 2011 - 6:34 am

    Either way, (former) Libyan leader مُعَمَّر القَذَّافِي‎ has died on October 20, 2011.
    Wikipedia article on him has been updated.

  10. Dr Arabia -  October 21, 2011 - 5:20 am


  11. Dean -  October 21, 2011 - 4:38 am

    I have always say that, the most important part of your articles is the the “after thoughts’, the comments, and this article proves that to the “t’. Now I am left more confused than before I read it.
    Guess I will just have to ‘pick sense out of nonsense”.

  12. Brianne -  October 21, 2011 - 1:32 am

    There is a standard transliteration guide used in the United States, which does not use the roman letters c, e, or o. His name spelled in Arabic is مُعَمَّر القَذَّافِي. Using this guide, his name would be spelled Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi

  13. sarmad shah -  October 21, 2011 - 1:29 am

    In Pakistan, since urdu is the national language of this country it comprises of many Arabic words and urdu is the synthesis of Arabic, Persian, Turk, Sindhi, Hindi etc. In Pakistan it is pronunced as “QaZZafi”
    in addition to Qaddafi, Gaddafi and Ghaddafi.

  14. Bruno Santos -  October 21, 2011 - 12:46 am

    But I reckon that we should write Qadhaafi…

  15. Bruno Santos -  October 21, 2011 - 12:43 am

    Muammar Khadafi – In Portugal and almost all european countries writes this way.

  16. Jojo -  October 20, 2011 - 10:27 pm


    cool info! but..is everything dictionary.com said wrong? i bet not ALL of it is wrong…right?

    i’m not an expert in this “Arabic” field, if you will, but I think some parts might be correct… :D

  17. Mymieke -  October 20, 2011 - 9:40 pm

    For the record, the word “spelt” refers toTriticum spelta, which is a hexaploid species of wheat. “Spelled” is what you do with words when spelling them out.

  18. Kathleen -  October 20, 2011 - 8:07 pm

    Didn’t Gaddafi die or something?

  19. CABBYMAC DA ONE -  October 20, 2011 - 7:24 pm


  20. Eman -  October 20, 2011 - 6:57 pm

    the only thing i care about right now is not the way u spell his name…its that hes gone….every Muslim out there deserves the freedom us American’s have!!! And if God will’s every other Muslim country will be FREE!!!! :o) <3

  21. JustSaying -  October 20, 2011 - 6:04 pm

    Not that I have read all the comments, but I had to comment; people don’t be so confident when you write, lest you be WRONG!

  22. Goo Goo Whooshie -  October 20, 2011 - 5:45 pm

    I heart mustard you are so pickley how dare you insult my pasta pot pie i love to hug!!!!!!!!!! How do you know I’m flabby? I love to pick my nose. Oh no! My toilet is running away from me! Come back here! You’re grounded for a week, and I’m not using you either.

  23. Ace-of-Stars -  October 20, 2011 - 5:29 pm

    I think the commenter calling him/herself “MOOT” provided us with the best and ‘realest’ answer! L.O.L.

  24. nahom -  October 20, 2011 - 4:12 pm

    i’v never spelled any thing wrong so i dont’ think i will get this right

  25. Carol -  October 20, 2011 - 3:14 pm

    In what universe was Khaddaffy Duck, International Year of the Mad Man Poster Boy, a “politician”? He was a vicious dictator who ruthlessly suppressed the people of Libya; he was most assuredly not someone who “holds political office.” Perhaps you ought to make use of your own resources before writing your columns.

    • Threya -  February 6, 2015 - 6:31 pm

      … and now that have anarchy instead of government – how fortunate they all must feel now… NOT!

  26. LHS_Cheer_11 -  October 20, 2011 - 3:07 pm

    I believe that since several people explained why this article was incorrect, people do not need to keep repeating the argument, some with even more confusing explanations. In my perspective, Any way the man’s name is spelled really is kind of moot. Things are mistranslated in any language and all the time. People will pronounce the name in the way their language suggests. While the article may have been incorrect, it was a very insightful article and the knowledge cannot possibly be that incorrect for them to publish this. All I am saying is, it is kind of a waste of time to argue over whether the writing was correct or not.

  27. Jonas Y. -  October 20, 2011 - 3:05 pm

    Representative spellings : Ghaddhafi, Qaddhafi, with one or two ‘d’s – Gh/Q for the the throat-click sound, and ‘dh’ for the ‘z’-like sound.

    Btw: what is Yemen today was the real and true ‘Arabia’ proper in ancient times.
    A number of archeologists and historians have recently concluded that Moses and His followers escaped the Farao’s troops by crossing over Eastward from Sinai peninsula at the Eastern branching of the Red Sea called Gulf of Aquaba or Eilat (depending on the inhabitants naming it.)
    Apparently the territory of Elim, East of the Sinai peninsula was part of a more vast region of ancient Persia or Parthia later fused with Assyria to form a broader Persian Empire with various peoples called the Iranian Peoples.
    Most of what is called the ‘Arabian Peninsula’ was in fact then part of the broader Persia with its very diverse multiple peoples influenced by Iranian languages, and the southernmost tip of that huge peninsula was ‘Arabia’ proper. Therefore Persian Gulf is historically correct. Nobody argues about the naming of the Indian Ocean or Arabian sea, named much later by colonial powers in reference to peoples of those regions, ‘in a spirit of fairness’ so all have a ‘share’ in peace :-)
    The advent of the Holy Prophet Muhammed helped articulate the language of those southernmost regions and a Persian writer later wrote its first grammar and due to the teachings of Muhammed, its influence spread even back to Persia and now throughout the world.
    However, certain such as Ghaddhafi (and many others) tried to abuse religion and language identity to dictate peoples’ intimate and private faith and caused great harm and misery through such abuse of religiosity threatening and blackmailing the masses into conformity, bigotry and false spirituality.
    ( swift explanation to best of my ability :)

  28. yeah -  October 20, 2011 - 1:49 pm

    I get the feeling that it is cynical to have this discussion when he has just been killed, regardless of how bad a tyran he was

  29. Amir -  October 20, 2011 - 1:46 pm

    alot of different way of thinking. So competetive……..

  30. lilo -  October 20, 2011 - 12:57 pm

    IT’S GADDAFI!!! and his dead now -.- :D :D THANK GOD <3 :D

    • Threya -  February 6, 2015 - 6:34 pm

      Yeah – thank God – now they have an anarchy instead of Government and they’re all killing each other!

  31. Malik -  October 20, 2011 - 12:36 pm

    I’m Arab, and the proper transliteration of the word (or the closest thing that you can get to it) is Qaddaafi.

  32. lezza -  October 20, 2011 - 11:37 am

    haha! Does anyone else find this thread as funny as I do? I had no idea that people were so passionate about correct transliterations.

  33. GalinKalamazoo -  September 8, 2011 - 4:27 pm

    is the first letter of this deposed ruler’s name pronounced the same as the the first letter in the Persian word for frog? It sounds the way a frog sounds, a ‘g’ and ‘k’ at the same time, in the back of the throat, almost like a guttural click.

  34. baidu -  September 8, 2011 - 4:19 am

    This article is as intriguing as it is informative. I read through this information and couldnt find a thing wrong with it. I cant imagine anyone writing this article better.

  35. jr -  March 27, 2011 - 3:33 pm

    In the 1980′s “KHADAFI” was used by the US media.

  36. Mona -  March 20, 2011 - 5:35 pm

    I would like to know why he only made himself a “Colonel?” Usually men in that position make themselves more important than that! And why all the gear?(clothes and wrap-arounds?)

  37. Prof Najmey -  March 4, 2011 - 1:08 pm

    I have been to lots of Arab countries; learned some from my Lebanese, Saudis,
    Yemenis, Egyptians etc. In my mother tongue, Urdu, we have Arabic, Persian,
    Hindi, English.
    So far I can comment is: in Lebanese ” Q” becomes ‘Aa’ Eg. A Lebanese says
    “Ma’ ool’= foe Ma’ qool meaning reasonable; in Arabic alphabets the sound
    for ‘g’ as in good, ‘b’ as in bad is also uttered. Eg. the say Bakistan, however,
    those who also know French are comfortable with ‘p’.
    Another interesting thing: Arabic alphabet has no ‘g’ but Egyptians called
    Jamaal Nasser as Gamal Nasser; Saudis do the same thing. They spoke
    ‘good-aam instead of Qoddaam to a step for ward. Only The Qura’nic, or
    Classical Arabic is authentic not the colloquial one.

  38. Get_to_the_Point -  March 4, 2011 - 4:07 am

    Standard Arabic: “Qaddafi” (arabic letter Qaaf)
    Libyan Arabic: “Gaddafi”
    Non-Arabic: “Kaddafi”

    END OF STORY. (please people make things simple and Get to the point!)

  39. Henry Page -  February 28, 2011 - 2:24 pm

    It is not true about the absence of the English sound “G” in the Arabic phonetic schema. ‘G’ is written as a ‘K’ with three dots over the ‘forward-slash’ upper arm of the ‘K’ thus ݣ. Though the ‘G’ is only commonly used in Moroccan Arabic. Think how Google is written in Arabic! It is thus written:


    Other similar letters missing from the Arabic schema are in practice, actually represented, such as ‘p’ and ‘v’ again using 3 dots over or under the symbol for ‘q’.


  40. David -  February 28, 2011 - 5:16 am

    Linguistically, the only difference between a “q” (or “k” for that matter) formed in the back (or front) of the mouth and a “g” is that the “g” is voiced and a “k/q” is not. But… The farther back you make it the easier it is to add the voice – making it sound like a slightly voiced “k” or an under voiced “g”. It is not hard to imagine a regional variation that would push it more like one or the other.

  41. M. Haimy -  February 27, 2011 - 6:12 pm

    The sound G does exist in Arabic. Although in a correct Arabic pronunciation it is supposed to be the letter ‘Qaf’. Most Arab nomads and Gulf area Arabs pronounce ‘Qaf’ as in the word G. So Gaddafi will be OK. Preferably, Qaddafi would be more acceptable.

  42. Mark N Hopgood -  February 27, 2011 - 7:41 am

    When people from the Netherlands (Holland) pronounce the G sound it comes out like ch in welsh – similar to the letter (غ) sound like G but heavy so the translation is Gh, phonetically?

  43. ali -  February 27, 2011 - 7:36 am

    There is no ‘G’ sound in Arabic. There is a ‘K’ sound but Qaddafi’s name isn’t spelt like that. It’s spelt with a ق and you can directly translate it into English. The closest you can get is a ‘Kh’ sound but it’s not pronounced with the ‘K’ sound. It’s sort of like a sound a cat makes when it goes ‘khhhhhhhhhh’. ^-^

  44. Beverly -  February 26, 2011 - 11:11 pm

    @Saman F

    I find it interesting that you insist the author should change “the Gulf Region” to “the Persian Gulf Region.” It’s my understanding that the region is called different names depending on where you are standing: When I was studying Arabic, every single one of my teachers (all native Arabic speakers) insisted that it was “the Arabic Gulf Region.” Considering that the name is somewhat contested, and the article is specifically discussing Arabic language, I think that “the Gulf Region” was a happy medium for the author to choose, so as not to offend anyone.

  45. ammar attar -  February 26, 2011 - 10:40 pm

    well you guys don’t know the truth of Arabic letter. the fact is the Arabic alpha beta is 28 where the english is 26 so here is the problem there are 2 letters not avaliable in english. first one is the (ض) this letter sound like D but heavy D so the translation is (Dh)cause it is not D there is another letter in arabic sound like D .. the 2 letter is (غ)this sound like G but heavy so the translation is Gh. cause we have another letter sound like G alone. this all the story other translation is mistake from people who don’t know arabic . the truth of Qazhaafi this is the real spelling of it, no other spelling cause Qazhaafi name has none of these letters. ض DH or غ GH since his name don’t have these letter so how they translate it. but the first lettter of his name can be Q or K cause english pronounce this 2 letter some times same. like word (Quran) (Kuran) both sound the same. this is the right if you are looking for the turth

  46. Ali -  February 26, 2011 - 10:16 am

    Qadhaafi is the correct transliteration :

  47. Sophia from Arabia -  February 26, 2011 - 10:06 am

    The explanation for why different sources write it differently maybe a good one (although they shouldn’t do it because incorrect).

    I agree with previous comment by “anonymous on February 26, 2011 at 8:11 am.”

    Q is the correct translation (or closest because in Arabic it is a little stronger & comes from back of mouth/top of throat). Regardless of differences in *spoken* dialects, everyone in the Arab nation writes in the standard way with “Qaf”

  48. Abdulrahman Al-Ghamdi -  February 26, 2011 - 9:53 am

    I do not know where you get your information.. I’m an Arab and we still speak “Classical Arabic” it is the standard language for all Arab countries and what is used in any formal occasion.. Now, when we talk informally it differs a little but not in a way that it can be considered another language.. I mean even in English people don’t talk the standard language between themselves or they would be considered a little posh..

  49. Abdul Ghani -  February 26, 2011 - 9:41 am

    Good point you are trying to make, the pronunciation “Q” which is a thick guttural sound, is not found in English, also, this letter is pronounced differently throughout the Arab world, Libyans pronounce it as G in “Game”, in Syria and Lebanon we either say the original pronunciation, or say it as A in “Aim”. So basically we can’t say one spelling is wrong and the other is right. However, if you want to use the standard Arabic pronunciation, the best spelling is “Al Qaddafi”, and if you want to use the Libyan dialect, use “Al Gaddafi”

  50. anonymous -  February 26, 2011 - 8:11 am

    The neutral way of pronouncing it would be ” Qaddafi”. except the Q is slightly heavier, with the sound produced in the back of the mouth (top of throat) with the back of the tongue instead of top of the mouth with the middle of the tongue.

    two variations of the “dd” in the middle of the name are accepted as neutral.
    the first is as they are, with a D sound. the other is a “th” sound as in the word “The” (not as in theatre).

    I don’t know of any region that would pronounce it with a K sound. so Kadafi is definately bad transliteration. there are to letters in arabic, one that sounds like the english K, while the other is like a deep Q. Qaddafi is spelt with the latter.

    “Gh” is used for another letter altogether, that sounds like a french R, with the production of the sound slightly pulled even further back to the top of the throat.

  51. Dave Miller -  February 26, 2011 - 7:59 am

    Excellent explanation offered here. As a teacher of ESL, I go through this trying the “th”, “gh”, “ou” and a host of other sounds we employ.. And since our language is the soup of so many other languages, the rules and exceptions are increased many-fold.

  52. Lee Morgan -  February 26, 2011 - 7:37 am

    This explanation makes no sense. If Arabic doesn’t have a ‘g’ sound, then why would the transliteration include the letter?

  53. Matt -  February 26, 2011 - 7:28 am

    If there is no /g/ phoneme in the Arabic language, and obviously there is no Arabic letter G, how is the Arabic pronunciation of the letter “G” as in “good” a famous roadblock for translating Arabic in to English?

  54. karl villanueva -  February 26, 2011 - 6:34 am

    good article, very thorough, informative thanks for explaining that

  55. Victor -  February 26, 2011 - 6:34 am

    What’s in a name ?
    A X-dafi spelled any old way still remains a @*!<^ …butcher !
    Let him go to where he should have been sent long ago and good
    riddance !

  56. Ole TBoy -  February 26, 2011 - 5:50 am

    Since the sound “G” as in “good” does not exist in Arabic–get that–DOES NOT EXIST–how did a spelling of the Libyan dictator beginning with “G” ever come into existence? Very, very curious.

  57. R.Chen -  February 26, 2011 - 5:13 am

    I prefer to spell my Gadaffi…….. Señor Muammar de la cabeza el-Khadaffy

  58. MOOT -  February 26, 2011 - 5:07 am

    Methinks his name is mud.

  59. Leena -  February 26, 2011 - 5:01 am

    This explanation is actually not true. The reason for the varied spelling is due to Gaddafi’s Libyan dialect, in which he pronounces his name, Qaddafi, with a G as in “good.” Replacing the “Q” letter, which in Arabic is stronger than and varies from the letter “K,” is quite common in many dialects no matter how much they differ, including in the Gulf. The “Q” or “Qaf” sound in Arabic emanates from the throat, and thus is more difficult to pronounce on a consistent basis. Although it is generally uncommon for proper names to be pronounced with this accent, it is accepted in spoken Arabic since it follows Gaddafi’s own pronunciation of his name. However, in written Arabic, there is no variation and the letter used is the “Qaf”, since as this article mentions, no alternative letter exists (albeit colloquially.)

  60. Michael Peters -  February 26, 2011 - 4:56 am

    Thanks for your article. It was very insightful. I’ve often wondered why the spelling of “Irak” in English in the 1980s suddenly changed to “Iraq”. This nature of the change was different to the one described above, because everyone changed the spelling to “Iraq” consistently and at the same time: newspapers, TV reports, atlases. Why did this change in the English spelling occur so dramatically and universally? And why have the French keep the traditional spelling “Irak” when we changed it in English? Did the then Iraki/Iraqi government make the change in spelling, or was it generated by the news media? If it was the latter, by whom and why did the spelling change? Was it a political statement by the Iraki/Iraqi government, or the exiled Iraki/Iraqi resistance movement?

  61. Hades -  February 26, 2011 - 4:52 am

    A famous roadblock for any Arabic to English translator is the Arabic pronunciation of the letter “G,” as in “good.” Since such a sound does not exist in the Arabic language, the first letter of “Gaddafi” can be replaced with a “q”, “k” or “gh” sound. This helps to explain the numerous interpretations for “Gaddafi.”

    Firstly, credit where it’s due: there is no /g/ sound in Arabic. Secondly, everything else you’ve said is all wrong!

    Let me give it a stab: Firstly, at present, there is no spoken language called “Arabic”. The Arab people speak a variety of languages among themselves. Secondly, there is a language called Classical Arabic which is the language of the Quran and also the literary language of the Arab world. The relationship between Classical Arabic and the modern Arabic languages is roughly that between the romance languages such as Spanish/French and Latin.

    Now on to the man’s name. The spelling of the name begins with the Arabic consonant known as ‘Qaaf’. In classical Arabic, this is pronounced like a k but by pressing the tongue against the back and not the roof of the mouth. Technically, in linguistics, the ‘Qaaf’ is romanised as a ‘q’ which explains the spelling ‘Qadafi’. But, that is academeses and the ‘q’ in English is pronounced exactly like the k. In effect, to an English speaker, ‘Qadafi and ‘Kadafi’ are one and the same, hence we have ‘Kadafi’.

    Now the ‘Gadafi’ variant. Earlier on, I’d said that in classical Arabic, the ‘Qaaf’ letter is is pronounced like a k but by pressing the tongue against the back and not the roof of the mouth. However, in modern Libyan Arabic, there exists no such pronunciation. Instead, the ‘Qaaf’ is pronounced like a breathy ‘g’ (the different variations of English excel at variations of pronunciation for the same spelling but in English’s case the differences are largely in vowels). This ‘breathy g’ has the ‘g’ as its closest equivalent in English hence ‘Gadafi’.

    There’s also a similar explanation for why the middle of the word is spelt sometimes with a ‘dh’ as well but I’ll let that be for now.

  62. ali jan -  February 26, 2011 - 3:10 am

    absolutely right.

  63. Saman F -  February 26, 2011 - 1:26 am

    There is no Gulf Region..
    You must write Persian Gulf Region …
    Please Correct it

  64. Thomas -  February 26, 2011 - 12:58 am

    English is the same way. Look at your dictionary people. It`s usually at the bottom, the pronounciation key! Every vowel, yea, most letters, have multiple pronounciations. We don`t add these to our writings because they are defined based on the placement of the letter in the word and it`s relation to the other letters in the word.

  65. Van -  February 25, 2011 - 11:43 pm

    From my previous contact with friends in America who come from the Arab world, I agree with you that it is true about the absence of the English sound “G” in the Arabic phonetic schema.
    Interestingly enough, earlier this month I was informed by one of my C(h)ampa friends in Vietnam that there is no “G” sound in C(h)ampa language although I do seem to detect the existence of such voiced quality when I learned to correctly (according to my informant) produce the sound /GÀÌ/ (“giã”, “đập” in Vietnamese and meaning to mill or to crush in English.)
    The world of sounds is full of colors, isn’t it?


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