Saturday, October 22, 2011
What's In A Name?
Friday, October 21, 2011
What to write, what to write….. Oh, here’s something. Moammar Khaddafi is dead. I probably haven’t spelled the name like your local newspaper does, but that’s what suits me, and that seems to be the rule when it comes to spelling his name. You’ll find that people spell it every which way—with a "K" or a "G" or even a "Q," and variations in the number of lower case "d"s and "f"s, and a "y" at the end instead of an "i." Sometimes they throw the Arabic definite article "al" or "el" in front of it, too. Moammar Alkadafy. Muamer El-gadaffie. Like Murray the K, Dick the Bruiser, or Cedric the Entertainer. Well, not exactly, but that’s what it always puts me in mind of.
The AOL home page, for instance, spells it Gadaffi. The Los Angeles Times spells it Kadafi—short and sweet. I noticed this afternoon that ABC news spells it Khadafi. Some publications spell it Qaddafi. Nothing says Arab to a westerner like a "Q" without a "u" following it. So odd and foreign. And odd and foreign he was, that’s for sure. I imagine the true pronunciation of the intitial consonant sound is somewhere between the guttural "G" and the "K." But really, can the sound be that hard to approximate with a single agreed-upon letter from our alphabet?
One web site I saw alleges that there are no fewer than 112 English spellings of the name Khadaffi, all of which translate, as we know, to "the wacky Libyan strongman," or more formally, as now seems to be case, "the dead wacky Libyan strongman." Strongman, by the way, is what we in the English-speaking world call someone we consider to be a non-democratically elected leader of what we consider to be a third-world country. The term carries the taint of opprobrium along with the suggestion of relative powerlessness on the world stage, although not complete powerlessness. The leader of a completely powerless country would be known as a chieftain or a warlord, or something of that kind. The head of a really powerful country is almost always called by his chosen or legal title. If we really hate him we might refer to him as a dictator.
At any rate, the newspapers and the television stations of the western world seem to pick their spellings almost at random, though the pronunciation remains the same pretty much everywhere. It’s tempting to say that it really doesn’t matter how we spell Khaddafi using the Roman alphabet because he and the Libyans and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world spell it using an entirely different alphabet. I wonder how many variations there are in Arabic? My guess is not very many. But I really don’t know.
Here’s the thing, though. There are any number of Arab leaders whose names we spell absolutely the same way in English, every time. Saddam Hussein was one, and Hosni Mubarak is another. Or how about the guy everybody loved to hate, what’s-his-name--oh yeah, Osama bin Laden? What was so much less complicated about his name that everybody in the U.S. and U.K. managed to spell it the same way every damned time? For that matter, when it comes to spelling names transliterated from other alphabets, why did everybody get behind "Mao Tse-tung" for all those years, then, when the time came, switch universally and almost instantaneously to "Mao Zedong"? No confusion there.
I think there are a several things going on with the fact that no two sources seem to want to spell the name Khaddafi the same way. One is that nobody ever felt enough of a proprietary interest in him to "own" the spelling of his name, to say, "Look, this is how his name is gonna be spelled in the English-speaking press and in diplomatic circles." Sure, he did business with the Europeans, selling them oil, and he pissed everyone off by courting and giving aid to people we considered terrorists, and he kicked out thousands of Italians who felt they had sort of owned the country at one time, but in the end he just didn’t resonate with anybody. The U.S. tolerated him, then hated him and bombed him, then ignored him, then mellowed out on him, then when they saw which way the current wind was blowing started hating and bombing him again. But nobody took the guy all that seriously. He seemed to want to be too many things--leader, brother, good guy, bad guy, oil salesman, reformer, anti-colonialist, rich man, humble desert nomad, power broker, snappy dresser. Too many roles beget too many names.
Part of it was just his ineffably weird looks. He was known for camping out in a Bedouin tent at home and when he went to other countries. Also, he was only a colonel, for Christ's sake. He was in control of a country and an army, and he couldn't even promote himself to general, or generalissimo, or Divine Leader? Part of it was his generally lightweight stabs at political reforms and ideology. Part of it was just his inherent goofiness, the comic-opera-dictator mannerisms he most certainly learned from a guy like Mussolini. And like Il Duce his body is now on display like a big piece of meat. He isn't hanging upside down in a gas station, but he didn’t hang with the right people, that’s for sure. Maybe if he’d gone to Spago or partied with Princess Margaret or appeared on Larry King or Oprah things would have been different. If anybody has the power to regularize the spelling of somebody’s name, it should be Oprah.
Well, now his ass is dead, and we still can’t agree on how to spell his name. There’s more than a little ignominy in that fact. I don’t say he was a great guy or anything, but give him a single spelling for his name now that he’s gone. Show me another leader of a country where this has happened in the modern age. No one ever disagreed on how to spell Pol Pot’s name, or Kim Il Sung’s, or Ho Chi Minh’s, notwithstanding the fact that they were originally written in foreign alphabets. In the end, what remains of us after our good or bad is interred with our bones, is just our name. Or 112 of them, as the case may be.