How is corruption like snow?

In English, the word ‘accountability’ means to take responsibility for one’s actions, but in Spanish there is no such term

The meeting room in the Spanish Royal Academy.
The meeting room in the Spanish Royal Academy.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

In countries where snow abounds, words abound to describe it. And the same goes for corruption. Where there’s a lot of corruption, it goes by many names.

In the Sami language, spoken in Norway, Sweden and Finland, there are more than 300 words for snow. In Latin America, and in countries such as Italy, Greece, Nigeria and India, there are hundreds of words for corruption. Coima, mordida, moches, ñeme-ñeme, guiso, mermelada and cohecho are some of the words for corruption used in Spanish-speaking countries. But just as interesting as the concepts we have too many words for, are those we have none for.

In Spanish, for example, there is no word for “whistleblower” – no one-word description of a person who nobly reports illegal activity or unethical behavior.

One notorious whistleblower was Jeffrey Wigand. He was a senior tobacco company executive who famously announced on national television that his company was lacing tobacco with ammonia to make nicotine more addictive. Naturally, the disclosure had an immense impact that, among other effects, forced the government to crack down on the tobacco industry. Not surprisingly, after Wigand filed his complaint, he was threatened.

It is for this reason that many countries now have laws that protect those who expose the illegal or improper behavior of the government and private companies. What’s more, there are awards and accolades for those who publicize nefarious behavior. In the United States there is even the National Whistleblowers Center, an NGO that provides legal assistance, protection and support for those who reveal corruption in government or the private sector.

But in Spanish the word “whistleblower” doesn’t exist. It is revealing that the closest equivalents all have negative connotations, sounding more like snitch, sneak, toad or rat. Another word that doesn’t appear in Spanish but is widely used in English is “accountability” – taking responsibility for one’s public actions.

The closest thing in Spanish is rendición de cuentas, or “rendering accounts,” and it refers to the information that the government and corporations are required to disclose. But it’s not the same thing. In Latin America and Spain, public bodies account for their actions in a bureaucratic and accounting sense, but seldom truly accept the political or moral responsibility for what they have done. What’s more, there are plenty of situations where governments do not feel obliged to “render accounts” to their citizens. On the contrary, opacity, obstruction, disinformation and lies are the norm.

In principle, regimes with leaders who are transparent and responsible are expected to have better “governability.” That’s another word that Spanish speakers have missed out on. In fact, it was only added to the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy in the 1990s. According to its definition, gobernabilidad is the “quality of being governable,” and the word gobernanza (governance) refers to the “art, or a way, of governing.”

Bad government and weak governability are a plague on many countries. Frequently, this is due to the continuismo of those who hold power. According to the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, continuismo is a “situation in which the power of a politician, a regime, a system, etc., continues without signs of change or renewal.”

The word continuismo is often used in the Ibero-American political debate to denounce the way leaders try to hang on to power by changing rules and laws and even rewriting the constitution. How do you say continuismo in English? You can’t. There is no corresponding word. Interesting, isn’t it?

More than ever nations need a culture of accountability, where we honor the whistleblowers whose grievances contribute to improving our governability while short-circuiting continuismo.

The problem is that Ibero-America can’t even have this discussion without using multiple awkward Anglicisms. It’s time to start expanding Spanish with words that pay homage to decency and honesty.


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