BOGOTA Richard Nixon, Paris Hilton, Justin Bieber and Starbucks have all made the mistake. The host of the Miss Universe pageant made the mistake — right after making an even bigger mistake.
Since Colombia gained independence in 1810, it seems English-speakers have inadvertently been trying to rechristen it Columbia with a “u.” And increasingly, this nation of 48 million is letting the world know that it wants its “o” back.
Emilio Pombo and Carlos Pardo launched a campaign and merchandise company called “It’s Colombia Not Columbia” in hopes of correcting the world at large. But three years later, they don’t seem any closer to eradicating the problem.
“It’s an error that’s committed everyday,” Pombo said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to eliminate it completely.”
Evidence of the problem abounds. In December, the host of Miss Universe, Steve Harvey, infamously crowned the wrong woman. Then he sent out a tweet apologizing to the spurned “Miss Columbia”
But Harvey’s in good company, celebrities like Bieber and Hilton have made the error and companies like P.F Chang’s, Virgin Mobile and Starbucks have all launched operations here by misspelling the country in their press releases.
Tucked into a nook at the country’s national planetarium is a small faded Colombian flag that was carried to the Moon during Apollo 17. It’s accompanied by a plaque from President Nixon that reads: “Presented to the people of the REPUBLIC OF COLUMBIA.”
It’s easy to see why English speakers might make the mistake. The United States is awash in references to Columbia — from the nation’s capital, to movie studios, to sporting-good companies, to universities and space shuttles.
And word wonks point out that there’s a historical case for the two spellings. At the root of both variations is an even earlier translation quirk: that of the Genoa-born explorer Cristoforo Colombo. In Spanish, his name became Cristóbal Colón and in English his name is, of course, Christopher Columbus — setting the stage for the “o” and “u” battle.
To complicate matters, the English language has a rich tradition of renaming countries. Few bat an eye when España becomes Spain or Italia becomes Italy. Closer to home, Brasil is written with a “z” in English.
“There is not a 100 percent natural rule for spelling country names,” said Madalena Sánchez Zamapaulo, a board member of the American Translators Association and CEO of Accessible Translation Solutions.
So while West Africa’s Cote d’Ivoire is commonly known as the Ivory Coast, Costa Rica is never referred to as Rich Coast.
But even she’s noticed the wrong Colombia increasingly making it into print.
Anytime someone writes it correctly I want to give them a high-five because you see it spelled incorrectly all the time.
Madalena Sánchez Zamapaulo, Translator
“Anytime someone writes it correctly, I want to give them a high-five because you see it spelled incorrectly all the time,” she said.
There are even some in Colombia who think there may be room for spelling variations.
“Colombia as a country is suffering from low self-esteem and it’s paying far too much attention to what other countries say about it,” said Alejandro Giraldo, who works in media relations at the Javeriana University in Bogotá.
He speculated that the push-back may be more about what nation is mangling the word rather than the spelling itself. Latin America is sensitive to the United States’ oversized, and not always positive, role in the region. And having Americans change the country’s name is simply too much for some, he said.
I’ve never heard anyone complain that the French call us
“I’ve never heard anyone complain that the French call us Colombie or that the Germans call us Kolumbien,” he said. “If [we’re] so worried about the spelling of our name then why aren’t [we] taking issue with them also?”
Pombo and Pardo say their campaign is less about whipping the world into unified spelling and more about correcting the flawed vision many people have of this nation.
“We created the campaign because of the positive moment that the country was going through in its economy, politics, sports and arts,” said Pombo. “But outside, people are still focused on our past — on issues like violence and drug trafficking.”
Those in the know recognize that Colombia has churned out musicians like Shakira and Juanes, world-renowned painters like Fernando Botero, writers like Gabriel García Marquez and athletes of the caliber of soccer star James Rodríguez and cyclist Nairo Quintana. The Colombian movie The Embrace of the Serpent was just nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. And if that’s not enough, the nation is also on the verge of signing a peace deal that would end a half-century civil conflict.
Shadow of Escobar
But in popular culture (like Netflix’s Narcos and Caracol TV’s El Patron del Mal), it’s the country’s violent past that’s still front and center.
“There are people who think that Pablo Escobar is still wandering around here,” Pombo said.
So when he does notice an errant “u” he and a legion of other social media scolds will correct the mistake but also remind the world of all the positive things happening here.
Among those positive things? The duo behind the campaign says they’re selling almost $15,000 worth of “It’s Colombia Not Columbia” merchandise a month.
“We never intended for this to be a business, we always wanted this to be a campaign about a concept,” said Pardo, who said they’re struggling to keep some products, particularly baseball caps, on the shelves. “The business has been an accident — but we’re happy that it’s happening.”