Columbia ( ) is a poetic name for America (in the sense of "European
colonies in the New World") and the feminine personification of the
United States of
America. It has inspired the names of many persons,
places, objects, institutions, and companies in the Western
Hemisphere and beyond.
is a New Latin
neologism, based on the surname of the discoverer Christopher Columbus
. The ending -ia is
common in Latin names of countries, e.g. Britannia
"France"). The meaning may be understood as "land of (or discovered
for "America" (in the sense of "European
colonies in the New World") first appeared in 1738 in the weekly
publication of the debates of the British Parliament in Edward Cave
's The Gentleman's Magazine
Publication of Parliamentary debates was technically illegal, so
the debates were issued under the thin disguise of Reports of
the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput
, and fictitious names
were used for most individuals and placenames found in the record.
Most of these were transparent anagrams or similar distortions of
the real names; some few were taken directly from Jonathan Swift
's Gulliver's Travels
; and a few others
were classical or neoclassical in style. Such were Ierne
for Ireland, Iberia
for Spain, Noveborac
York, and Columbia
for America. The name appears to have
been coined by Samuel Johnson
thought to have been the author of an introductory essay (in which
"Columbia" already appears) which explained the conceit of
substituting "Lilliputian" for English names; Johnson also wrote
down the Debates
from 1740 to 1743. The name continued to
appear in The Gentleman's Magazine
until December 1746.
is an obvious calque
, substituting the base of the surname of the
discoverer Christopher Columbus
for the base of the
given name of the somewhat less well-known Americus
As the debates of Parliament, many of whose decisions directly
affected the colonies, were distributed and closely followed in
America, the name "Columbia" would have been familiar to the United
States' founding generation.
In the second half of the 18th century, the American colonists were
beginning to acquire a sense of having an identity distinct from
that of their British cousins on the other side of the ocean. At
that time, it was common for European countries to use a Latin
name in formal or poetical contexts to confer an
additional degree of respectability on the country concerned. In
many cases, these nations were personified as pseudo-classical
goddesses named with these Latin names. The use of "Columbia" was,
in effect, the closest which the Americans, located in a continent
unknown to and unnamed by the Romans, could come to emulating this
By the time of the Revolution, the name Columbia
the comic overtone of its "Lilliputian" origins and had become
established as an alternative, or poetic name for America. While
the name America
is necessarily scanned with four
syllables, according to 18th-century rules of English versification
was normally scanned with three, which is often
more metrically convenient. The name appears, for instance, in a
collection of complimentary poems written by Harvard graduates in 1761, on the occasion of the marriage
and coronation of
- Behold, Britannia! in thy favour'd Isle;
- At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince,
- For ancestors renowned, for virtues more;
The name "Columbia" rapidly came to be applied to a variety of
items reflecting American identity. A ship built in Massachusetts
in 1773, received the name Columbia
; it later became famous as
an exploring ship, and lent its name to new "Columbias."
No serious consideration was given to using the name
as an official name for the independent United
States, but with independence the name became popular and was given
to many counties
, and towns, as well as other
In part, the more frequent usage of the name Columbia
reflected a rising American neoclassicism
, exemplified in the tendency to
use Roman terms and symbols. The selection of the eagle as the national
bird, the use of the term Senate to describe the upper house of Congress, and the naming of Capitol
Hill and the Capitol building were all conscious evocations of Roman
adjective Columbian has been used to mean "of or from the
United States of America", for instance in the World's
Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, Illinois.
Occasionally proposed as an alternative word
has not re-entered general English use. It
should not be confused with the adjective "Pre-Columbian
", referring to a time period
before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and other European explorers
As a quasi-mythical figure, Columbia
first appears in the
poetry of Phillis Wheatley
in 1776 during the revolutionary war:
in the 19th century, Columbia would be visualized as a goddess-like
personification of the United States, comparable to the
British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita and the French Marianne, often seen in political cartoons of the 19th-early 20th
- One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
- When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
- And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
- The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
- Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
- For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
This personification was sometimes called "Lady
Columbia" or "Miss Columbia".
Columbia at the National Memorial
Cemetery of the Pacific.
The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was
most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age,
wearing classically draped garments decorated with the stars and
stripes; a popular version gave her a red-and-white striped dress
and a blue blouse, shawl, or sash spangled with white stars. Her
headdress varied; sometimes it included feathers reminiscent of a
Native American headdress, sometimes it was a laurel wreath
, but most often it was a
cap of liberty
Statues of the personified Columbia may be found in the following
Since 1800, the name Columbia has been used for a wide variety of
- The song "Columbia, Gem
of the Ocean" (1843) commemorates the United States under the
- Columbia Records, founded in
1888, took its name from its headquarters in the District of
- Columbia Pictures, named in
1924, uses a version of the personified Columbia (the so-called
"Torch Lady") as its logo.
- CBS's former legal name was the Columbia
Broadcasting System, first used in 1928. The name derived from
an investor, the Columbia Phonographic Manufacturing Company, owner
of Columbia Records.
- The Command Module of the
Apollo 11 spacecraft, the first mission to
land on the Moon, was called Columbia
- The Space Shuttle
Columbia, built 1975-1979, was named for the exploring ship
- A personified Columbia appears in Uncle Sam, a graphic novel
about American history (1997).
Outside the U.S.
The name "Columbia", in various forms is found outside the United
States. The most notable instance is in the Republic
of Colombia, named in 1863 after the earlier federation of
Gran Colombia (at the time known as
and officially named the Republic of Colombia) that had existed
The name had been chosen by revolutionary
Francisco de Miranda
anticipation of a vast empire including all former Spanish colonies
in the New World .
Queen Victoria chose the name
Columbia" for the westernmost province of Canada; it takes
its name from the Columbia River,
which in turn was named after the American sailing ship
- The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 8, June 1738, p.
- Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical
Society, Dec. 1885, pp. 159-165
- Debates in Parliament, Samuel Johnson.
- E.g. "Gallia" for
France, "Helvetia" for Switzerland, "Lusitania" for Portugal, "Caledonia" for Scotland, "Hibernia" for Ireland, etc.
- Hoyt, Albert. The Name 'Columbia' , The
New England Historical & Genealogical Register, July 1886, pp.
- Pietas et Gratulatio Collegii Cantabrigiensis apud
Novanglos, no. xxix. Boston, Green and Russell, 1761.
- Selections from Phillis Wheatley Poems and