Q&A: Is it “Columbia” or “Colombia”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have bags of fun…

Q: Hey AWC, can we have another chat about geography?

A: Oh, you mean like when we looked at whether it was Netherlands or Holland, as well as the difference between the UK, Great Britain and England?

Q: Yeah exactly.

A: Oh, then there was that time we looked at the origin of all of Australia’s main cities – that was quite the journey.

Q: It certainly was. However, this one I have is a bit simpler – it’s about that country in South America.

A: Brazil?

Q: Nope.

A: Argentina? Great at football those lads.

Q: Yeah but no. I’m talking about the country of Columbia.

A: Wait – you mean Colombia, not Columbia.

Q: Exactly! So many people get it confused, right?

A: They really do. And it doesn’t help that in somewhere like Washington D.C., the letters stand for “District of Columbia”. 

Q: So, that’s all from Christopher Columbus, yeah?

A: Well yes, the explorer who in the 1490s famously tried to find a sneaky shortcut to Asia. However, it was another explorer – Amerigo Vespucci – who figured out that what he found wasn’t Asia but actually a “New World”. It was named “America” in his honour.

Q: Sure, but Columbus?

A: It took another two centuries before early European settlers dabbled with other names for America – with the short lived “Columbina” popping up in usage in the 1690s. Finally, in the 1730s, the name “Columbia” took hold.

Q: Why “Columbia”?

A: At the time, there was a big thing about personifying places by adding the Latin “–ia” to the end. At the same time in Britain, Rule Britannia was written – with both Columbia and Brittania being women who represented the country.

Q: Women ruling the world!

A: Quite ironic that this happened back in this time – perhaps the men in charge liked the idea of a female figurehead, even if they’d never actually elect one. 

Q: So “Columbia” represents the USA?

A: Well remember that when she was first being used, it was pre-1776 and America was still a British colony. Initially the name was more of a codename and used lightly. But as America’s relationship with Britain strained, there was an identity crisis taking place, and the name “Columbia” quickly began to have poetic and symbolic significance – a name for these 13 new colonies.

Q: Are you going to start singing Hamilton at me?

A: Nope.

Q: I’m willing to wait for it…

A: Haha, nice. So, in the late 1700s, we see the notion of “Columbia” added to this nation they now got to build. It appears on ship names, the origin of New York’s Columbia University and South Carolina’s capital being named Columbia. The new founders at the time were in love with all things Roman, creating a senate and capitol buildings. “Columbia” fit this perfectly – so much so that in 1801, the new federal district was named the “District of Columbia”.

Q: The DC universe!

A: Exactly. This love affair with Columbia and all things Roman just happened to coincide with the founding of a brand new country. 

Q: Good timing.

A: It was. And as we have since seen with how revered the constitution (and its amendments) are, these terms are still looked on favourably. That’s why we see 20th century namesakes such as Columbia Pictures movie studio – with the female “Columbia” as its logo. It was even the name of the very first space shuttle in 1981 – continuing its pioneering identity.

Q: Okay, so that’s a good account of “Columbia”. So let’s head to South America now. Why is the country named “Colombia”?

A: We don’t talk about Bruno.

Q: Huh?

A: Never mind – just getting into the zone. So modern-day Colombia had been home to indigenous tribes for more than 12,000 years before the Spanish turned up. 

Q: So its name also came from Christopher Columbus?

A: It did. Although, it was more from the 1700s name “Columbia” (that we already spoke about above) – picked up by revolutionaries of the time such as Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar for their own identity politics. In particular, Bolivar saw the name “Colombia” as representing an identity for this part of the Americas – switching it to an O to reflect Spanish, rather than the U of its Italian namesake.

Q: We don’t talk about Bruno.

A: Haha, exactly. Anyway, there were a bunch of early names including the United States of Colombia, New Grenada and the Granadine Confederation. Then, in the 1860s, we finally got the Republic of Colombia – used to this day, but usually just known simply as Colombia.

Q: So after all that, really the only difference is that one kept the U and the other decided to “Spanishify” it?

A: Essentially yes. They both came from Christopher Columbus – or more specifically the 1700s personification of the New World as “Columbia”. In North America, they stuck with that spelling, while the Spanish revolutionaries in South America decided to switch the U for an O.

Q: So, to recap – unless we’re talking about the South American country of Colombia, everything else in North America is likely to be spelt “Columbia”.

A: Isn’t geography fun!


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