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

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.


  1. I really liked the article as this a common error made by any people most part of the world but I disagree with you as Simon Bolivar did not die on 1816 as you wrote; he died on December 17, 1830. Just google it!

    I encourage you to do the research first before you judge others. If not, you will lose your credibility. Also I think you should not insult others to get some attention just use words that encourage people to learn more


  2. The names share the same root: Columbus/Colombus. Colon, also derived from the Gk to Latin with its roots in ‘colony’, as the bowels have colonies. Hence, not wanting certain bacteria or fungus to ‘colonize’ the gut. C. Columbus and his cohorts were Romanticizing and colonizing the New World in the name of the Royalties. They were ready & prepared for war/conquest, not in the exploration of spices! So, the Moors…did they not take the Iberian Peninsula and the regions by storm? And with their Afro-Arabesque elements – the Orient had already been infused within Iberia.

    Colombia and Columbia are the name(s) that signify the Goddess of Conquest, War & Domination, as does Libertas. These districts have become major capitals, literally, for capital gains at the cost of innocents.

    We normal human beings and common folks have culture, integrity and God given rights – although I’m not Colombian, I am Colombian – for the people, not for the conquistadors.

  3. So while everyone is so focused on Colon or Columbus. You are missing the true meaning of Columbia with a “U”. It is a mythical goddess of freedom, the personification of the United States. It is Columbia who stands on top of our Capitol building. It is Columbia who you see at the beginning of movies from Columbia pictures. The Columbia River is also named for her. I too spend a fair amount of time correcting the people who don’t know better the difference between Colombia and Columbia. I can’t think of a place that makes me happier to be than Colombia.
    Please check, unfortunately, the Spanish version of wikipedia doesn’t have a translation.

  4. Right, Colombia. But how did the country get this name from the “Tierra de Colon” as it was once called. My point, the Spanish, who really like to twist names of non-Spanish names like “Argelia”, for example, even though they still call the city “Algiers”, called Columbo (his Italian or Genovese name at the time) Colon! So how did the Spanish get Colombia from Colon?

    • Indeed in Italian is Colombo, Columbus is the Latin version of his name. Many countries in Spanish have the suffix -ia, used to refer to places with names coming from Latin (Australia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Francia). I can imagine that the use of Colonia as derivation directly from Colón would create a confusion with the city of “Cologne” or the word for “colony”, that is a bad choice if you are just founding a country after 300 years of colonialism.

      • Juan, OK, I get it. Colonia, meaning “colony” in English, would not sell well, agree. So instead, take the Latin version of Colon’s name, and add -ia to it. I can understand to some extent why we change country names (Finland instead of Suomi, Allemania, Germany, Nemecko for Deutschland) or city names (Prague instead of Praha) from one language to another. But I find it demeaning, if not insulting, that countries like Spain would change someone’s last name to suit their interests. Not only Colombo to Colon, but Fernão de Magalhães to Fernando de Magallanes. That shows a lot of arrogance.

  5. 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).

    • 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….

    • 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.

    • You may think this is petty , but when you see the misspellings over and over again, it gets beyond annoying. And right now there’s the whole thing about Miss Colombia the Miss Universe pagent 2015 being announced erroneously as the winner. And tons of comments on videos, articles and most peopl still spell Colombia wrong even when the name is in the title and in article.

    • The real problem is that in English the proper spelling for the name of the Country is Colombia. Then the people that refers to the country in other form are just misspelling on its own language. It shows a lack of education and ignorance, Just read your own dictionary!. In German the name is Kolumbien, and here no Colombians are complaining about that.
      About being shamed about the name, there are other countries that most feel more ashamed not but a name but for what they are. We have many problems, but we never vote for a guy that kills millions in a death “factory”, or only allow interracial marriage until 1967 or even drop atomic bombs in the head of many civilians. Then please not tell others what they need to feel ashamed of.

  6. OKAY SO
    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 (????????) 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.

      • 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

    • Hello Jason look my lord and all who will read this….the facts are that in LATIN it WASN”T COLUMBE it was COLUMBUS! exactly the same way in English! in SPanish, French, Portuguese they all went to pronouncing it as Colon, colombo, colomb, respectively! so it was the NEO-latin languages which changed it from the ORIGINAL LATIN U sound to an O. SO really it’s not an ANGLIZED WAY.. it’s a TRUE LATIN WAY, not evolved! as far as spelling goes. And why should we say the name how it’s said in SPANISH? people in Spanish don’t call ENgland England in Spanish. we say inglaterra. people don’t say E.E.U.U. in English for U.S.A.! we put U.S.A. So why the heck does some wight think that we must change our language for him? Columbia is the official way of putting out the word for a land from the name COLUMBUS in ENGLISH! and that’s it! in Spanish you don’t say NEW YORK! you say nueva york. You musn’t follow the Spanish way in a different tongue!! in German do you say Kolumbien! that’s with the ORIGINAL LATIN U! I’m proud of being a British Latin Columbian! and yes, I do have Canadian, American and Colombian nationalities! this is sheer ignorance from a bothered person! Jesus loves us ALL! all the columbians in the world. Latin Americans and British Latin Columbians!

  7. 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:)

    • many countries are translated accordingly! Germany, alemania, Columbia, Colombia, england, Inglaterra, ALemania, Deutchland! , Netherlands, paises bajos. you don’t have to say Deutchland in English WHEN referring to Germany. you use the English WAY! such arrogance. I’m a British Latin Columbian and I have Canadian, Colombian and American Nationalities. And the true way in Spanish for ALL COLUMBIAS is Colombia. The real way if you refer to British Columbia in SPanish is COlombia britanica! IN french, it’s Colomb! and Colombia in French is Colombie. and when in french you say British COlombia you say la colombie britanique. They only folks that wish for their not to be evenness hereinbetween are some latin americans with inferiority comlexes. Stop being sottish! and think and learn. ! Stop being arrongant!

  8. 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.

    • 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-wil?y?t al-muttaHida al-amr?k?ya
      Armenian — Am?rikayi Miatsyal Nahangn?r
      Basque — Ameriketako Estatu Batauk
      Belorussian — Zlu?anyja Štaty Amèryki
      Breton — Stadoù-Unanet
      Bulgarian — S?edinenite Amerikanski štati
      Catalan — Estats Units d’Amèrica
      Chinese — Meilijian Hezhongguo / Meiguo
      Croatian — Sjedinjene Ameri?ke Države
      Czech — Spojené Státy Americké
      Danish — Amerikas Forenede Stater
      Dutch — Verenigde Staten van Amerika
      Estonian — Am?rika Ühendriigid
      Farsi — ey?l?t-e mottaHedeye emr?k? / et?z?n?
      Finnish — Yhdysvallat
      French — États-Unis d’Amérique
      Irish Gaelic — Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá
      Georgian — Amerikis Šeert’ebuli Štatebi
      German — Vereinigte Staaten von Amerika
      Greek — ?n?ménes Politeíes Amerikées
      Hebrew — Arts?t ha-Br?t šel Amer?qa
      Hindi — Sãyukta R?jya Amrik?
      Hungarian — Amerikai Egyesült Államok
      Indonesian — Amerika Serikat
      Italian — Stati Uniti d’America
      Icelandic — Bandaríkin
      Japanese — Amerika Gashukoku / Beikoku
      Kazakh — Amerika Q?rama Štattary
      Lao — Sahalat Æmelik?
      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 Ameri?ke 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 — amerikk? kuTiyara?u
      Thai — Shrath Merik?
      Tongan — Pule’anga fakatahataha’o Amelika
      Turkish — Amerika Birle?ik Devletleri
      Turkmen — Amerikany? Birle?en ?tatlary
      Ukrainian — Spolu?eni Štaty Ameryky
      Uzbek — Amerika Qo’shma
      Vietnamese — M? / H?p chúng qu?c Hoa k?
      Welsh — Unol Daleithiau America

  9. 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!

  10. 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!

  11. 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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