What’s in a Name, You Ask? An Editor’s Preoccupation with Getting It Right

As an editor who once misspelled the surname of the former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan (1985–1987) by adding in an extra “a” (he served in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, dang it), I’m writing this blog entry from experience. Yes, it happened a long time ago, but it still makes me wince.

Fact-checking and copyediting go hand in hand, so I spend a lot of time each day verifying the accuracy of names, dates, historical facts, and assorted trivia. This should be a routine practice for writers, too. Even if you’re 99 percent sure of the spelling of someone’s name, it’s worth the extra minute or two it will take to bring your degree of certainty up to 100 percent.

I visit a lot of websites on an average workday, and many of my favorites (not surprisingly) are popular in publishing circles. In a recent article on a very reliable site for writers and editors, I noticed that the actor Nicolas Cage’s name was spelled incorrectly. Cage doesn’t spell his given name as one might expect: It’s Nicolas, without the “h.” Why would I know this? Believe it or not, my first published piece was a profile of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose film Raising Arizona featured Cage in the male lead. I remember reading that Cage’s name was misspelled as “Nicholas” on the back of a chair on the set of that film. It bugged Cage so much that one of the Coens put a bandaid over the “h” to smooth hurt feelings.

Weird trivia like that sticks with you.

Another commonly misspelled name is the middle name of the great American poet Edgar Allan Poe. (“Allen” and “Alan” are among the most common variations.) Just because “Allan” looks wrong doesn’t mean it is.

In addition to misspellings, names are vulnerable to variations in spacing and capitalization. Perhaps the best example of this is the surname of the renowned African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois. Quite a few spacing and capping possibilities exist in this case: There’s “Du Bois” (with a space between the two parts of the surname), “DuBois” (no space), “duBois” (the lowercase/uppercase combo without the space), and “Dubois” (initial cap only with no space). You’re getting the idea, right?

If you search the Library of Congress Online Catalog by the title of one of Du Bois’s books—say, The Souls of Black Folk—you’ll find his name spelled this way: Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt). But if you go to Amazon.com and check out the cover art for the array of paperback and hardcover versions of the same title, you’ll see that the citation of the author’s name varies according to publishing house and edition.

And now that we’ve broached the topic of name variations, let’s look at a transliterated name that’s been spelled about six dozen different ways in English (and I’m not exaggerating): It’s the name of Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi.

In the 1999 pilot of my all-time favorite television show The West Wing, White House chief of staff Leo McGarry (played by the inimitable John Spencer) has a near conniption while trying to solve a crossword puzzle that uses “the wrong” spelling of Gaddafi’s name. In 2011, when Gaddafi was ousted from power and later killed, news commentators expressed ongoing frustration with the multiple spellings of his name. Does it start with a “Q,” a “K,” or a “G”? In a quick online search, I found stories on the Libyan leader that cited his name six different ways, listed alphabetically here for lack of any other system: “Gaddafi,” “Gadhafi,” “Ghaddafi,” “Kadafi,” “Khaddafi,” and “Qaddafi.”

Consistency is key. If you’re dealing with a transliterated name, pick a spelling that’s accepted by a leading newspaper or magazine and go with it. It should be spelled the same way every time it appears in your work.

Fiction writers should take note of this consistency message as well. A character named “Marguerite,” for instance, should not morph into “Margarite,” “Margarita,” or “Margaret” by book’s end. Think of it as the literary equivalent of a cinematic gaffe in which an actor’s scarf is open before a cutaway but winds up in a slip knot in the time it takes to cut back to the original shot. Someone’s going to notice.

Granted, we can’t get everything right, but a little bit of double-checking goes a long way in publishing.