Brazil vs Brasil

Why do the spellings ‘Brazil’ and ‘Brasil’ both exist? Brazilians refer to their homeland as ‘Brasil’, with an 's', while much of the rest of the world uses ‘Brazil’, with a 'z'.  But how did this seemingly unnecessary bifurcation of the ‘z’ and ’s’ come to pass?

Clark's Brazil

The country of Brazil was named after the Brazilwood tree (Pau-Brasil), which got its name due to its reddish wood resembling the colour of red-hot embers ( ‘brasas’ in Portuguese). In the native language of Tupi-guarani the tree is called ‘Ibirapitanga’, which literally means 'red wood', and in the early days of the Portuguese colony the wood of the tree was used to dye clothes and fabrics in Europe and was the main export. 

Brazilwood
Brazilwood

Curiously, when reading old texts and researching historical artefacts in Brazil, it quickly becomes apparent that even Brazilians regularly used the term ‘Brazil’ instead of the contemporary version with an ’s’ and they continued to do so well into the 20th Century.

 
Brazilian coin from 1889

Brazilian coin from 1889

 

It turns out that for centuries there was much confusion. The Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters) was only founded in 1897 and, previously, there was no official institution in Brazil to establish rules on orthography. Furthermore, only a small amount of Brazilian society had access to education. As a result, the lack of an official or correct way to spell it meant both spellings were widely used until that point. The new society's renowned founder and first president, Machado de Assis, was charged with the care of the national language and the institution was devoted to the Portuguese language in Brazil.

 
Machado de Assis - founder of the Academia Brasileira de Letras

Machado de Assis - founder of the Academia Brasileira de Letras

 

Nonetheless, it took until 1945 for Brazil and Portugal to finally meet and agree on the first orthographic vocabulary of the Portuguese language and define the term for the ex-colony as ‘Brasil’, with an 's'. To the Latin American nation's irritation, the Anglosphere and many others ignored the new lexicon and continued to use the term ‘Brazil’ as per before.