Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Colombia vs. Columbia vs. Colombia's Image

'Long live Columbia!' Can it be?
I noticed this graffiti yesterday on Ave. Septima. It must be a satire.

It comments on a sensitive point for the South American nation named after the Genoese mariner who

arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, altho he never set foot in present-day Colombia. (I'm careful not to call him the 'discoverer of the Americas', since millions of people already lived here.) Whether due to cultural prejudice or just sloppy typing, gringos commonly spell Colombia's name with a U.

To combat this assault on Colombia's self-respect, someone's set up an 'It's Colombia not Columbia' Facebook page and even an It's Colombia not Columbia virtual store.

Amongst Colombia's enduring image problems, the difference between an O and a U is one of the most trifling. During Colombia's big run in this year's World Cup, that's manifested itself in foreign celebrities' crude jokes associating Colombian footballers with cocaine. Dutch actress and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Nicolette van Dam resigned after tweeting a photo showing Colombian football stars snorting lines on the field. Van Dam quickly apologized:

I retweeted a picture with absolutely no harm intended at all. I honestly did not want to offend any player, cause anyone to feel uncomfortable or create disgrace in any way.

But the very fact that Van Dam initially saw only humor in the image shows how Colombia's association with illegal drugs is still widely taken for granted.

More interesting than the vowel that's employed is why Colombia is named 'Colombia' at all, rather than 'Colonia', the logical derivation of the explorer's Spanish name, Cristobal Colon. The country's name comes from the explorer's Italian surname, Colombo. That's probably lucky, since 'Colonia' would undoubtedly generate more than its own share of bad jokes.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


coolcoil said...

I will get upset about gringos using Columbia when Colombians stop spelling "United States" as "Estados Unidos."

Columbia is simply the English spelling of the word Spanish speakers spell as Colombia. North American has many cities, a large river, a famous university and a Canadian Province named Columbia. I'm willing to bet most Colombians would misspell them too.

For some reason, only English speakers are expected to ensure that they can correctly spell and pronounce the location names of only Spanish speaking countries in their native language. God help me if I were to refer to San Andres as Saint Andrew, but a Colombian using Nueva York or Londres is perfectly fine. Fortunately, I am not required accord the same respect for countries that use other languages, as it's really hard to both spell and pronounce the Russian for Moscow and I am in the habit of saying "Italy" rather than "italia."

Miguel said...

Hi Coolcoil,

Thanks for your comment, but I beg to disagree.

You make a good argument, but I think the difference comes down to tradition and acceptance. Nueva York is an accepted place name, for whatever historical reasons, whereas 'Columbia' is not.

Perhaps it's just a question of age why place names like London and Geneva and Belgium have alternative spellings for different languages, but Latin American ones do not. Wait around for a couple of centuries and that might change.

But, for now, just about everyone seems to agree that 'Columbia' is incorrect when referring to the country.

In any case, it probably prevents confusion with a certain university.



coolcoil said...

I agree with you that "Columbia" is incorrect, and I do gently correct people when they make that mistake. My point was that the indignation from Colombians about the issue is out of proportion. The same is true for pedantic gringos who pompously correct their countrymen.

iamjuancediel said...

Coolcoil it's as if someone went around the office or school or wherever it is you frequent on a regular basis and intentionally call you out of your name or intentionally mispronounce your name even though you have politely corrected them before. It's not difficult, it's pure laziness.

Brad said...

The best parallel is Brasil. English speakers respelled it to "Brazil" so it was more phonetically accurate. We should have done the same thing with Colombia, but we didn't and shall forever suffer for it.

Thus we now we have strange juxtapositions, such as writing about pre-Columbian culture in Colombia!

coolcoil said...

iamjuancediel, you illustrate my point perfectly with your over-the-top claim. I find it highly unlikely that you regularly encounter people who deliberately misspell the name despite knowing better. As for your belief that the failure is laziness, you may have a small point, but I hope you never make any spelling or pronunciation mistakes.

Colombians very often misspell and mispronounce names in English, and I don't let it bother me. I've given up on trying to get people to spell my name as "John" rather than "Jhon." When I introduce myself, I use the Spanish pronunciation of my last name as using the English is a lost cause. There was a time when I thought such things were important, but I know that people do not do this out of malice, so I have no reason to get hot under the collar about it.

Miguel said...

I just realized why the different spellings are a big positive. When I Google search 'Colombia' references to Columbia University come up, which is annoying. But just imagine if the two were spelled the same - research would be lots harder.

The only two Latin American nations which I can think of that change their spellings between English and Spanish are Colombia and Brazil. Mexico I guess sometimes. But many African nations do: South Africa, Ivory Coast, Egipto, Algeria. Guess that's because many are words, and others for ancient historical reasons.