on Jan 25, 2013 • by Richard Emblin

Home » Opinion » Columbia vs. Colombia

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.

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.

Home » Opinion » Columbia vs. Colombia

16 Responses to Columbia vs. Colombia

  1. Jason says:

    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 says:

      Cristobal Colon

      • Jason says:

        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

  2. Diana says:

    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:)

  3. Rose says:

    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.

    • Richard Emblin says:

      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.

      • Rose says:

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

      • Richard Emblin says:

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

  4. Ed Buckley says:

    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!

  5. Joan Larrahondo says:

    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!

  6. Anonymous says:

    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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