How to spell the Ukrainian president’s name

You may not have noticed this as much as a former editor would, but the Ukrainian president’s surname, in the news these days in connection with Donald Trump’s impeachable behavior, has been variously spelled Zelenskyy, Zelenskiy, or Zelensky.

A cardinal rule of journalism is to spell names correctly. So, some of these news stories must have violated the rule, right? Maybe not, according to Quartz reporter Hanna Kozlowska.

There is no standardized way of transliterating President Volodymyr Z’s name from the Cyrillic alphabet of his native Russian into our Latin alphabet. In an online article last week, Kozlowska wrote that she asked several Ukrainian acquaintances how they would spell the name and got five different answers: Zelinskiy, Zelenskiy, Zelensk’kyy (as pronounced in Ukrainian), Zyelenskiy (as pronounced in Russian), and Zelenskii.

Although Zelenskiy has been used on social media, the name is spelled Zelenskyy on the president’s passport and is his preference for the English spelling, the Ukrainian administration announced in May.

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher responded to a Business Ukraine magazine tweet about the official English spelling that it was unlikely the BBC would go along: “[N]othing (that I can think of) is spelt [sic] in English with a double y . . . the second one brings nothing to the party.”

Presidential spokesperson Iuliia Mendel replied that the president would not be offended if news organizations used a spelling other than Zelenskyy. I’ve noticed the Chicago Tribune most often uses Zelenskiy, which seems more confusing to this English speaker than the double y. The Associated Press, the style guru for many US newspapers, has been using Zelensky.

“[S]pelling confusion surrounding the English-language versions of Ukrainian names is the rule rather than the exception,” Peter Dickinson, publisher of Business Ukraine and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, blogged on the Atlantic Council’s website in June. “This results in English-language coverage of Ukraine in both the media and academia that often employs a dizzying array of contradictory spellings while referring to the same people.”

Dickinson thinks “this is particularly unhelpful” because Ukraine “is still struggling to shake off decades of international obscurity.”

Noting that Russia has spread misinformation about its relatively unknown adversary, Dickinson wrote, “Spelling the English-language versions of Ukrainian names in a consistent manner will not prove decisive in the information war, but it would mark a minor step away from perceptions of the country as a perplexing and often incomprehensible place where even people’s names are open to interpretation.”

Place names are “a far more politically loaded issue,” Dickinson said, as Ukraine tries “to shed the lingering vestiges of historical Russian domination.”

So, if you’re still writing Kiev, be aware that it should be Kyiv now. And never ever put a “the” before Ukraine.

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