One might think that 200 years since its independence as a nation, the spelling record would be set straight. Yet far too often there exists confusion on how to spell the name of a South American country: Colombia. That’s Colombia with an ‘O’. Not Columbia, with a ‘U’.  We are geographically far from British Columbia and a shuttle age that endured many missions after the ‘Columbia’ disintegrated over Texas in 2003. Yet many still get it wrong. There are no Rocky Mountains in Colombia. We are in the Andes.

The spelling confusion could be justified if one has never traveled to South America or one’s knowledge of the world has been stunted by a lack of education. Even us journalists get it wrong. But that’s no excuse. We can rely on Google Earth these days to see where Guyana is in relation to French Guiana, and Ghana in relation to Guinea-Bissau. Or vice versa. But if you are an editor at a major news group and you are covering a peace process in ‘Columbia’ you are lost in a linguistic and cultural forest.

At one point in its long history, Colombia was part of ‘La Gran Colombia’ a region which today includes Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador. After liberating these countries from Spain during his military campaigns in the early 1800s, Simon Bolivar knew the importance of ‘what’s in a name’. He had defeated his colonial masters in the “Land of Colon” (Tierra de Colon), named after the Genovese seafarer Christopher Columbus.

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And even wiki-historians, get some of these facts wrong. Columbus was Italian, not Spanish. He was commissioned by the Royals of Castile to bring back spices from the Far East and found himself sailing towards the Americas. This was three centuries before Bolivar’s campaign of independence for inhabitants of the ‘New Granada.’

The word ‘Colombia’ appears in a newspaper – ‘Colombiano’ – published by General Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), one of Bolivar’s close ideological allies and the military commander who would enlist the support of the British to free his native country, Venezuela, from Spanish rule. He was a Tocqueville of sorts, dreaming of a united continent, which would extend from the warm shores of the Caribbean to the frozen plateaus of the Patagonia. His vision endured only on paper. After his army deserted him, he was captured by his Old World enemies and sent to languish in a Spanish prison. He died in 1816.

For historians, the origin of ‘Colombia’ is rooted with the name, Columbus. Hence, maybe herein lies the confusion. Columbus is the Anglicized name of Colón. But centuries after the spice race, I still get emails asking if I am “living in Columbia.”

I generally respond with an ‘O’ and a ‘yes,’ although its been many years since I’ve been to Vancouver, or visited the famous New York university.

So let’s set the record straight, once and for all. ‘Colombia’ is the name of a country with 45 million inhabitants. It has a yellow, blue and red striped flag. The natives generally are a friendly lot, who work hard for a living. They have contributed much to the world of science, sport and art. And will continue to do so; even if they are often geographically misplaced by one vowel.

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  1. Anonymous
    January 25, 2015 at 9:33 am — Reply

    I understand that the issue is one of identity and branding. Colombians want to assert their identity and make a name for themselves. In that respect, I can see why they are annoyed by misspellings. However, from a non-Colombian point of view, this annoyance seems petty (based on an inferiority complex?). With some major languages (e.g., English, German) naming the places that Columbus visited after him with a “u,” it should not cause so much posturing and annoyance when ignorant and well-meaning foreigners misspell the darn name (I say darn, because if I were a Colombian, I’d rather not be named after a historical figure with such a track record of cruelty).

    • January 30, 2015 at 9:24 am — Reply

      You are partially right, anonymus, but it is not of an “inferiority complex”, what if we emailed you asking: “Are you still living in EUA (Estados Unidos de America)?” and eeeeverywhere on the internet seeing EUA ? that’s the point. And yes it sucks as well to be named after a historical figure of such magnitude in cruelty record, but long before we were called The Great Colombia…so yeah….

    • Samantha
      August 24, 2015 at 1:38 pm — Reply

      I am a colombian and yes, I consider this fight for the “O” extremely ridiculous. In a country with so many social, educational and political problems, the fact that people bother themselves building such a big hype over this, seems totally senseless. On the other hand it does feel like an inferiority complex, talking to friends and relatives in here, it’s easy to tell there is a bit of a resentful feeling towards the first world, specially USA. So I guess, this leads to picking on this very small thing.

  2. Jason
    September 17, 2014 at 5:42 pm — Reply

    America used to be referred to as Columbia, named after Christopher Columbus.
    Therefore, British Columbia is the name given to the British part of America (ie Columbia), and it was British because Canada was a British colony. So British Columbia means “British America” (but America as a continent, even though the word DOES have very strong ties to the USA).
    The Columbia River is what the area is named for, and it goes through both Canada and the US, hence British Columbia is the area of the Columbia river that is in Canada (British territory). The Columbia river is named that because America was Columbia.
    Colombia vs Columbia.
    If my friend is anything to go off of, haha, then people from Colombia are very adamant that they are Colombian and not Columbian. It’s not called Columbia.
    Both names are derived from Christopher Columbus.
    So really, they’re basically the same thing.
    Except that the name Columbus is from Greek kolumbos (κόλυμβος) so I’m thinking that both are off, since the Us are more like the english “oo” sound. So English made it a U and Spanish made it a O, but both are kinda off from the Greek.
    In Spanish, Columbia sounds like “coloombia” because that’s how they pronounce the U.
    But even though that would have been closer to the transliteration from Greek, both Italian and Spanish use Colombia instead of Columbia.
    So why does Italian use Colombo instead of Columbo, when the word in Latin was “Columbe”, for dove?
    I don’t think there’s an answer for that one, lol. Some italian guy decided that’s how it was going to be spelled.
    and that one guy, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, is the entire reason Colombia is called Colombia and not Columbia, and thus the entire reason why Spanish and Colombian people are butthurt about English-speakers misspelling Colombia as Columbia.

    • rsnmccoll
      September 18, 2014 at 7:46 am — Reply

      Cristobal Colon

      • Jason
        September 18, 2014 at 3:37 pm

        It seems Colón is believed to be a name that Columbus chose for himself upon moving to spain.
        Doesn’t change the fact that Colombia is named for him though, and that likely the river columbia was named after the area called columbia which was also named ater columbus

  3. Diana
    August 7, 2013 at 8:57 am — Reply

    I’m just glad people around me are getting the right spelling of the beautiful county of COLOMBIA. It feels great to educate people. That’s where the compassion comes into play:)

  4. […] Richard Emblin mä post The City Paper [en] Paper […]

  5. March 12, 2013 at 9:42 am — Reply

    Interesting article. But the US spelling of Colombia is “Columbia” just like the US spelling of Brasil is “Brazil”… do they get all indignant about that? I don’t say, “hola soy de United States” I say “hola soy de los estados unidos” Every country has there own way of spelling and pronouncing other countries names… I don’t understand the uproar.

    • March 12, 2013 at 1:41 pm — Reply

      The universal name of Colombia, the country, is always spelled with two ‘o’s. The OED official definition:
      a country in the extreme NW of South America, having a coastline on both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean; population 43,677,400 (est. 2009); official language, Spanish; capital, Bogotá. Colombia was conquered by the Spanish in the early 16th century and achieved independence in the early 19th century.

      Referring to Colombia (from the USA or any other country) as ‘Columbia’ is wrong. However, it is right to say pre-Columbian, as in artifacts, as it refers to era pre Columbus’ discovery of the Americas.

      • March 12, 2013 at 4:17 pm

        “Colombia” is not the universal name for Colombia. In German, it is “Kolumbien” and in France it is “Colombie”

      • March 12, 2013 at 8:37 pm

        In English, it’s Colombia. UK English. USA English. Canadian English. Australian English.

    • Diego S. Velazquez
      October 8, 2014 at 12:53 am — Reply

      English exonym for that country is COLOMBIA, PERIOD. I’ve seen this argument a lot through the internet. It’s just wrong!

      FYI, some official and CORRECT names (exonyms) for the USA in a long list of languages.

      Albanian — Shtetet e Bashkuara të Amerikës
      Arabic — al-wilāyāt al-muttaHida al-amrīkīya
      Armenian — Amērikayi Miatsyal Nahangnēr
      Basque — Ameriketako Estatu Batauk
      Belorussian — Zlučanyja Štaty Amèryki
      Breton — Stadoù-Unanet
      Bulgarian — Sŭedinenite Amerikanski štati
      Catalan — Estats Units d’Amèrica
      Chinese — Meilijian Hezhongguo / Meiguo
      Croatian — Sjedinjene Američke Države
      Czech — Spojené Státy Americké
      Danish — Amerikas Forenede Stater
      Dutch — Verenigde Staten van Amerika
      Estonian — Amērika Ühendriigid
      Farsi — eyālāt-e mottaHedeye emrīkā / etāzūnī
      Finnish — Yhdysvallat
      French — États-Unis d’Amérique
      Irish Gaelic — Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá
      Georgian — Amerikis Šeert’ebuli Štatebi
      German — Vereinigte Staaten von Amerika
      Greek — Ēnōménes Politeíes Amerikées
      Hebrew — Artsōt ha-Brīt šel Amerīqa
      Hindi — Sãyukta Rājya Amrikā
      Hungarian — Amerikai Egyesült Államok
      Indonesian — Amerika Serikat
      Italian — Stati Uniti d’America
      Icelandic — Bandaríkin
      Japanese — Amerika Gashukoku / Beikoku
      Kazakh — Amerika Qūrama Štattary
      Lao — Sahalat Æmelikā
      Lithuanian — Jungtines Amerikos Valstijos
      Macedonian — Soedineti Amerikanski Državi
      Malay — Amerika Syarikat
      Maori — Te Hononga o Amerika
      Mongolian — Amerikijn Nägdsän Uls
      Norwegian — Sambandsstatane
      Polish — Stany Zjednoczone Ameryki
      Portuguese — Estados Unidos da América
      Romanian — Statele Unite de America
      Russian — Sojedinjonnyje Štaty Ameriki
      Serbian — Sjedinjene Američke Države
      Slovak — Spojené štáty americké
      Slovenian — Združene države Amerike
      Somali — Qaramada Midoobey ee Maraykanka
      Spanish — Estados Unidos de América
      Swahili — Muungano wa Nchi za Amerika
      Swedish — Amerikas Förenta Staterna
      Tajik — Štathoi Muttahidai Amerika
      Tamil — amerikkā kuTiyaraču
      Thai — Shrath Merikā
      Tongan — Pule’anga fakatahataha’o Amelika
      Turkish — Amerika Birleşik Devletleri
      Turkmen — Amerikanyň Birleşen Ştatlary
      Ukrainian — Spolučeni Štaty Ameryky
      Uzbek — Amerika Qo’shma
      Vietnamese — Mỹ / Hợp chúng quốc Hoa kỳ
      Welsh — Unol Daleithiau America

  6. […] Richard Emblin explains in a post for The City Paper: We are geographically far from British Columbia and a shuttle age that endured many missions after […]

  7. […] Richard Emblin explains in a post for The City Paper: We are geographically far from British Columbia and a shuttle age that endured many missions after […]

  8. […] Richard Emblin explains in a post for The City Paper: We are geographically far from British Columbia and a shuttle age that endured many missions after […]

  9. […] Richard Emblin explains in a post for The City Paper: We are geographically far from British Columbia and a shuttle age that endured many missions after […]

  10. January 27, 2013 at 2:02 pm — Reply

    I lived in Columbia, South Carolina for a few years immediately before moving to Colombia, South America and explaining my plans was always a little frustrating… Most people I talked to actually said “Oh, Colombia with an ‘o'” though… so maybe things are improving for the twenty-something set!

  11. Joan Larrahondo
    January 26, 2013 at 11:17 am — Reply

    Thank you for this article! Seriously, as a Colombian, at some point it gets old pointing this out to intern’l people over & over again. I’d rather have a foreigner himself explaining it!

  12. Anonymous
    January 25, 2013 at 9:19 pm — Reply

    you fail to understand both are pronouced similar and in the US people are fimilar with the U and not the O…yeah it is fustrating when people get it wrong but isn’t Colombia not just a country of passion but also compassion?

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