It is Columbia or Colombia? We know where we stand on this debate

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Colombia or Columbia
Colombia or Columbia

One might think that 200 years since its independence as a nation, the spelling record would be set straight. Yet far too often, confusion persists 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.

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 an early 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. Maybe therein 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 they will continue to do so, even if they are often geographically misplaced by one vowel.

7 COMMENTS

  1. 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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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