Someone at MetaFilter linked to “In the Shadow of the Patriarch,” a long, long New Republic article by Enrique Krauze on “Gabriel García Márquez and the demons of his time.” I’ll confess up front that I’ve only read the first of its nine pages, and furthermore that I may very well not get any farther; I’ve enjoyed most of the García Márquez I’ve read, but I’ve already read more than I really need about his life, times, and politics. However, the article begins with a reflection on his relations with the dictionary, which seemed like obvious LH material:

Many years later, in the course of writing his memoirs, Gabriel García Márquez was to remember that distant afternoon in Aracataca, in Colombia, when his grandfather set a dictionary in his lap and said, “Not only does this book know everything, it’s the only one that’s never wrong.” The boy asked, “How many words are in it?” “All of them,” his grandfather replied.

Anywhere in the world, if a grandfather presents his grandson with a dictionary, he is giving him a great instrument of knowledge; but Colombia was not just anywhere. It was a republic of grammarians. During the youth of García Márquez’s grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía, who was born in 1864 and died in 1936, a number of presidents and government ministers—almost all of them lawyers from the conservative camp—published dictionaries, language textbooks, and treatises (in prose and verse) on orthology, orthography, philology, lexicography, meter, prosody, and Castilian grammar. Malcolm Deas, a scholar of Colombian history who has studied this singular phenomenon, claims that the obsession with language that was expressed by the cultivation of these sciences—their practitioners, Deas notes, insisted on calling them “sciences”—had its origin in the urge for continuity with the cultural heritage of Spain. By claiming “Spain’s eternal presence in the language,” Colombians sought to possess its traditions, its history, its classic authors, its Latin roots. This appropriation, preceded by the foundation in 1871 of the Colombian Academy of Language, the first offshoot in America of the Royal Spanish Academy, was one of the keys to the long period of conservative hegemony—it lasted from 1886 to 1930—in Colombian political history.

García Márquez’s grandfather is a prominent figure in the writer’s early novels, and he was no stranger to this politico-grammatical history. Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía fought in the ranks of the legendary Liberal general Rafael Uribe Uribe (1859–1914), one of the few caudillos in Colombian history. His story in turn inspired the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude. A tireless and hapless combatant in three civil wars, Uribe Uribe was also a diligent grammarian and a soldier in the civic battles between conservatives and liberals. During one of his stays in prison he translated Herbert Spencer, and in 1887 he wrote the Diccionario abreviado de galicismos, provincialismos y correcciones de lenguaje, or Abbreviated Dictionary of Gallicisms, Provincialisms, and Proper Usage, which seems to have been a moderate success.

In 1896 the general stood alone in Parliament against sixty conservative senators. Finally the crushing majority left him no choice but—in his own words—to “give voice to the cannons.” Uribe Uribe was the protagonist of the bloody Thousand Days War in 1899–1902, which ended with the signing of the Peace of Neerlandia. The signing was witnessed by Colonel Márquez, who, years later, would receive his former general at the family home in Aracataca, near the scene of the events. Uribe Uribe was assassinated in 1914. Two decades later, his lieutenant presented his eldest grandson not with a sword or a pistol, but with a dictionary. This tome that anywhere else would be an instrument of knowledge was, in Colombia, an instrument of power.


  1. Urban Garlic says

    You might take the time to finish the article — it’s well-written, and weaves the literary and linguistic elements together quite well, and is conservative in a thoughtful way, which is nice to see, whatever one’s personal inclinations.
    Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the article, but am a subscriber to TNR, and enjoyed Krauz’s “Mexico: Biography of Power”.

  2. marie-lucie says

    The article is translated from Spanish. Is it possible to get the original version?

  3. John Emerson says

    You left out the most important question: How many words do the Colombians have for snow?

  4. [T]he only [book] that’s never wrong.
    All of them.
    The grandfather’s swagger must have been a great enabler for the kid’s imagination, but the grandfather was quickly wrong twice, right? The tragicomedy of the grandfather’s encyclopaedism engages optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect equally.
    Two explorers head in directions at an angle of 180 degrees to each other, each seeking the most astonishing book in their world. One explorer finds a dictionary that’s never wrong and includes every word; the other finds one that’s also got every word, but is, uniquely, always wrong. They meet in the library at the Omphalos in the Forehead of the World, triumphantly exchange tomes, each surer than the other that his rival’s surprise and envy will be the greater, and discover that the two books compose
    (Here, the inscription has been rubbed smooth by mice passing out of and into a crack in the Omphalos.)

  5. In China after the fall of the Han Dynasty a Confucian scholar named Kong Rong founded a short-lived state in Shandong. He renamed the streets of its small capital in honor of the great Confucian scholars of Han, who were basically interpretive philologists who worked on the textual questions in the classics (often very creatively and imaginatively, it must be said.)
    Kong Rong was eventually executed for impudence and sarcasm, as was his disciple Mi Heng. The two of them represent a kind of decadent or cynical Confucianism — their root values were Confucian but in the world they lived in there seemed to be no place for Confucianism, so they resorted to satire and performance art.

  6. marie-lucie says

    MMcM, gracias.

  7. Por nada.

  8. “This appropriation, ”
    In what way was this an appropriation? These people were Spanish and this was already their cultural heritage. They were trying to retain and maintain it, not appropriate anything.

  9. The Garcia Marquez reference plus the dictionaries made me thing of two pieces in Alexander Cockburn’s “Corruptions of Empire”, “Robert Laughlin: Lost in a World of Words” and Edward James: at home in Xilitla”.
    The former is about a slightly mad lexicographer of Tzotzil, and the latter is about an almost fully mad surrealist architect who also lived in Mexico. (The link is magic realism.)

  10. Edward James: at home in Xilitla
    Thanks for the link, Emmers. But this is just sooo typical: no pictures. I don’t think Cockburn knows about pictures.

  11. Does “galicismos” refer to France or Galicia?

  12. marie-lucie says

    Offhand, I would think that uses reflecting Galician influence would be “galicianismos”, but I could be wrong.

  13. p.s. I was wrong. It would be “galleguismos”, things typical of the “gallegos”.

  14. Galicismo is ‘gallicism,’ something characteristic of or borrowed from France.

  15. Übrigens, language hat, a twenty-something Argentine friend of mine tells me that “gallego” is a generic term for Spaniards for him; was that true in your time in Argentina?

  16. marie-lucie says

    LH, my comment was on the word for possible “Galician” characteristics, since caffeind had already written France or Galicia. Maybe that was not clear.
    Aidan, perhaps a large number of the Spanish immigrants to Argentina were from Galicia.

  17. a twenty-something Argentine friend of mine tells me that “gallego” is a generic term for Spaniards for him; was that true in your time in Argentina?
    Yes, I think it goes way back.

  18. “…published dictionaries, language textbooks, and treatises (in prose and verse) on orthology, orthography, philology, lexicography, meter, prosody, and Castilian grammar”
    I wondered what connection genomics had with language. Apparently orthology has (had?) another meaning. A hurray-word for “linguistic prescriptivism”.

  19. peter desmond says

    i lived in argentina, and i recently had an argentine girlfriend for five years, so i have two more bits to add to this thread.
    “gringo” means italian in argentina.
    “turco” means arab — perhaps because they emigrated to argentina with a turkish passport?

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