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Uruguay Debates Whether To Clean Dictonary Of Racist Expressions

A Spanish dictionary
A Spanish dictionary
Guillermo Pellegrino

MONTEVIDEO – Racism and racist expressions are often ingrained in society. In Uruguay, they are also written in the dictionary.

Last month, Vice-Minister of Culture and Education Oscar Gomez urged the Uruguayan Academy of Letters to remove racist and offensive expressions from the Dictionary of Uruguayan Spanish. It is part of a campaign launched on Jan. 22 called “Let’s Erase Racism from our Language,” sponsored by the Afro-Uruguayan Culture Institute.

"In our every day language, there are expressions that can be used in discriminatory ways, and one of them – "to work like a black man" —appears in your dictionary," the Afro-Uruguayan Culture Institute wrote in a letter to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE). "This evokes a dark past in our history that no human should ever be subjected to again. We ask you to revise the permanence of this expression in your dictionary, while we find ways to eliminate all discriminatory expressions from our plazas, our schools, our playgrounds and our homes."

Gomez said that after reading the dictionary produced by the Uruguayan Academy of Letters, he decided to write a letter of his own. "The Uruguayan dictionary contains a series of expressions of the same type – and sometimes even harsher – than those that appear in the RAE dictionary," he said. Gomez cited examples such as “caliente como negra en baile” (hot as a black woman dancing), “como quien peina negro” (as difficult as combing black hair), “trabajar como negro chico” (to work like a black man).

A reservoir of good, bad and ugly

Gomez noted that it is the popular expressions that make their way into dictionaries, and not dictionaries that impose words or expressions.

Adolfo Elizaincin, President of the Uruguayan Academy of Letters, said he would study the matter, but that a dictionary reflects the language of society. “We cannot take out or include expressions just because a group considers that an expression is offensive. The dictionary must include everything; it is a reservoir of all lexical and expressive possibilities in a language," he said. "If you take something out because a certain group of people doesn’t like it, then someone else will come up with another word they don’t like and they will kill a reservoir that is like a museum of language where everything that created it is included, the good, the bad and the ugly."

Elizaincin said that a dictionary is a document of how a language is created. "It has nothing to do with racism, it is wrong to use it, but we will not eliminate the expression ‘to work like a black person’.”

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Shame On The García Márquez Heirs — Cashing In On The "Scraps" Of A Legend

A decision to publish a sketchy manuscript as a posthumous novel by the late Gabriel García Márquez would have horrified Colombia's Nobel laureate, given his painstaking devotion to the precision of the written word.

Photo of a window with a sticker of the face of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with butterfly notes at Guadalajara's International Book Fair.

Poster of Gabriel Garcia Marquez at Guadalajara's International Book Fair.

Juan David Torres Duarte


BOGOTÁ — When a writer dies, there are several ways of administering the literary estate, depending on the ambitions of the heirs. One is to exercise a millimetric check on any use or edition of the author's works, in the manner of James Joyce's nephew, Stephen, who inherited his literary rights. He refused to let even academic papers quote from Joyce's landmark novel, Ulysses.

Or, you continue to publish the works, making small additions to their corpus, as with Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett and Clarice Lispector, or none at all, which will probably happen with Milan Kundera and Cormac McCarthy.

Another way is to seek out every scrap of paper the author left and every little word that was jotted down — on a piece of cloth, say — and drip-feed them to publishers every two to three years with great pomp and publicity, to revive the writer's renown.

This has happened with the Argentine Julio Cortázar (who seems to have sold more books dead than alive), the French author Albert Camus (now with 200 volumes of personal and unfinished works) and with the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The latter's posthumous oeuvre is so abundant I am starting to wonder if his heirs haven't hired a ghost writer — typing and smoking away in some bedsit in Barcelona — to churn out "newly discovered" works.

Which group, I wonder, will our late, great novelist Gabriel García Márquez fit into?

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