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’.”