You Spell Potato, I Spell Potatoe

Spelling “foreign” words

If you read The New York Times, you’ve run across news of things happening in the Saudi Arabian city “Jidda.” If you get most of your news from the Associated Press, those same events happen in “Jiddah.” Should you subscribe to Reuters, the city is called “Jeddah.”

Imagine that times are still flush and you subscribe to all three services. Now imagine searching those sites for news of the only film festival in Saudi Arabia, which takes place in that city. What term should you search? And how many stories might you miss?

Most publications have stylebooks, either their own, or one of the majors: The Associated Press Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, or The Chicago Manual of Style. While the stylebooks disagree on many points, most of their differences do not impact readers’ efforts to seek information from any given publication.

But spelling does.

Because so much more copy is posted on Web sites than is printed in newspapers, and because so much less of that copy is edited or “processed” to reflect the publication’s style, the way words are spelled—particularly proper names—can vary widely, especially when being transliterated from a different alphabet. And because AP does not yet have the ability to transmit accents, sometimes even “common” words are rendered in a way that confuses their meaning. Accents make all the difference for example, between a “pate” (the top of the head), a “pâté” (a meat delicacy), and a “pâte” (a clay or flour paste).

Many search engines will return results based on spelling variants—a search on the Times site for the “Jidda Film Festival” returns, somewhat ironically, “Did you mean ‘Jeddah Film Festival’?”—but news sites have, on the whole, not incorporated that function.

So what to do?

There’s no easy answer, particularly with Cyrillic, Hebrew, or Arabic names, each of which has several transliteration conventions. Chicago recommends that authors pick one transliteration system and “stick to it with as few exceptions as possible,” advice better suited to static print publications than dynamic Web ones; the AP and Times stylebooks give differing advice, which, as shown above, isn’t always followed.

Or, one could do as T.E. Lawrence did in Revolt in the Desert and Seven Pillars of Islam. A publisher’s note to each explains that the spelling of Arabic names varied “according to the whim of the author.” Lawrence himself wrote: “There are some ‘scientific systems” of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are.”

This, of course, drove his proofreaders crazy, and resulted in these exchanges:

Proofreader: Jeddah and Jidda used impartially throughout. Intentional?

Lawrence: Rather!

Proofreader: Slip 20. Nuri, Emir of the Ruwalla, belongs to the “chief family of the Rualla.” On Slip 33 “Rualla horse,” and Slip 38, “killed one Rueili.” In all later slips “Rualla.”

Lawrence: Should have also used Ruwala and Ruala.

Proofreader: Slip 47. Jedha, the she camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.

Lawrence: She was a splendid beast.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.