Things you think about while waiting for the bus

I mean seriously, why do we call Cristoforo Colombo “Columbus”? It’s not as if “Colombo” is terribly hard for an English-speaker to say. It’s not even like “Iraq” which for some reason many Americans seem physically unable to pronounce the way everyone else does. It’s quite a simple name, with no trilled ‘r’s or guttural ‘g’s or ‘ch’s. There is the difference between Italian ‘l’ and American ‘l’ but I think we can get away with that. So why do we call him by the wrong name?

It’s not as if me call Michelangelo Mike Angelo. It’s not as if we call Fra Angelico Bro Angel. It’s not as if we call Mussolini Muscle Leany. So why “Columbus”?

Maybe all the existing Columbus-based names. The capital of Ohio. The university on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The movie company.

One of the passages David Sedaris read from his diary when I saw him a couple of weeks ago went roughly like this:

I think the Washington Redskins should keep their name, but change their logo to a bag of potatoes.

Maybe we should start afresh and call Columbus Bro Eyetalian Explorer Dude.


  1. unity says

    “Columbus” would be the Latinate equivalent of “Colombo” so I’d assume it’s simply a convention that stems from Latin being the primary language of educated classes in Western Europe. It was only after the Protestant Reformation that Latin began to be replaced by vernacular languages, initially across Northern Europe and only later on in the still Catholic south.

  2. Sili says

    Do you say Köln or Cologne?

    This idea of trying to emulate the silly foreigners is a modern invention. Until recently you were more likely to read about kings Henrik and Karl of England. Hell, we made our current prince consort call himself Henrik as well.

  3. quixote says

    unity’s point makes a lot of sense. Another example immediately came to me: Linnaeus is called by his Latinized name, not “von Linné.”

  4. Brian E says

    The name Christopher Columbus is the Anglicisation of the Latin Christophorus Columbus.

    Why do the Spanish call him Cristobal Colon?
    The invasion of the Americas began under the authority of the Catholic Monarchs of Castille/Aragon. It seems they would have been familiar with his Italian name. But then again, Some claim that Columbus wasn’t Italian but Aragones.

    Some modern historians have argued that Columbus was not from Genoa, but instead, from the Aragon region of Spain or from Portugal.

  5. says

    Sili – Actually I say Köln, at least in my own head. (It doesn’t come up in conversation all that often!) I’m not sure why…except I guess it’s the same thing as Colombo: I know what the real name is, and I like it better than the translation. And also, I guess, I’ve been there, and I know a little German. On the other hand I don’t pronounce “Paris” the French way unless I’m actually speaking French at the time. Don’t ask me why. These things don’t make any sense.

  6. says

    First time(s) went through Europe I had to double check routes a few times as major junctions or destinations I was looking for – Vienna, Florence, Lucerne – didn’t exist on the rail stations’ notice boards.

  7. ErrantEndeavour says

    That is quite interesting, and I’d never really put any thought into it before. I think from now on I’ll say ‘Colombo’ too. Also as a lover of languages, this is very pleasing to my ear.

    Also, tangentially, I have a tendency to use the word ‘discovery’ very, very loosely. As in ‘when Columbus discovered the Americas’. I’m certainly very aware that the Native Americans got there first, but still the use of this loose definition persists. I’m going to make a concerted effort to knock off both bad habits from now on.

  8. lpetrich says

    Vienna / Wien, Florence / Firenze, Rome / Roma, Moscow / Moskva, Belgrade / Beograd, Jerusalem / Yerushalayim, …

    It can get much worse with nations: Germany / Deutschland, Hungary / Magyarorszag, Greece / Ellada, India / Bharat, …

  9. chigau (違う) says

    I wouldn’t use ‘Nihon’ while speaking English or ‘Japan’ while speaking Japanese.

  10. says

    It definitely makes no sense. Working in an audio book recording studio, you become acutely aware of how inconsistent pronunciation conventions are, particularly when it comes to foreign languages.

    One example that often pops up is Chile. The convention in America used to be to say “chilly.” Over the years the Spanish pronunciation “CHEE-lay” has been gaining prominence. However, like Ophelia mentioned, almost no one says Paris as “pah-REE” unless they are speaking French. Why? I have no idea.

    We have a number of geographical dictionaries at work, and sometimes they’ll give an “American” pronunciation and then the pronunciation in the native language, but not always, especially for African countries. When you look up “Köln” it just says “see Cologne.” Frustrating.

  11. says

    Why is Colombo called Columbus? Probably for the same reason Amerigo Vespucci (Latin: Americus) became “America” to refer to the two continents. It’s not just the US. The country of Colombia is spelt with two O’s, but British Columbia is spelt with a U.

    Many Italian names end up being “Anglicized” such as Alessandro becoming Alexander. It’s not limited to Italian, K’ung Fu-tzu is known to English speakers as Confucius. And then there’s languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean which try to spell foreign names phonetically, but sometimes lack the sound in their language to do it (e.g. no F sound in Korean, no hard C or K in Mandarin Chinese, few consonant blends in Japanese).

    Or to put it another way, everybody makes furriner words easier for themselves to say and spell.

  12. says

    anthrosciguy (#7) –

    First time(s) went through Europe I had to double check routes a few times as major junctions or destinations I was looking for – Vienna, Florence, Lucerne – didn’t exist on the rail stations’ notice boards.

    There’s a weird one here in Taiwan. Tourist maps in numerous languages are available, but street names are only labelled in that language and many signs are in Chinese only, making it hard to identify and find streets. The only maps with two languages on them are Korean maps. They have English names (Taiwan and Korea sometimes use English as a lingua franca) and Chinese characters (which Koreans also learn), but no Korean script. Those are the ones I use, they make it easy to match characters to street names.

  13. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Chris Walker: “However, like Ophelia mentioned, almost no one says Paris as “pah-REE” unless they are speaking French. Why? I have no idea.”

    Maybe because they think the name comes from the Trojan prince (it doesn’t). And in addition, Americans have their own way of pronouncing it – and use it as a girl’s name.

    But what is “America”? Most of the world thinks about the big two-lobed continent between the two oceans, but some locals limit it to between Canada and Mexico. I’ve even heard a Texan being called “southern American”. (What do the Brazilians think about it?) Colombo found only the bigger America, not the smaller one.

    And then there are those Brits who think “North Europe” means Germany. Someone should tell them about Scandinavia.

  14. says

    A lot of people in Canada called that place over there “Eye-raq.” Makes me want to slap them.

    To Canadians America is the United States of America, and does not include Canada or Mexico.

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