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Why is “Filipino” spelled with an “f”?

Q: I’m curious about  the Philippines. Why is the name of the country spelled with a “ph,” while the name for someone who lives there is spelled with an “f”?

A: The word “Filipino” is spelled with an “f” because it’s derived from the Spanish name for the Philippine Islands: las Islas Filipinas.

Originally, after Magellan’s expedition in 1521, the Spanish called the islands San Lázaro, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But in 1543 the Spanish renamed them las Islas Filipinas, after King Philip II. (“Philip” is Felipe in Spanish.)  

In English, however, the name was translated from the Spanish as “the Philippine islands” or “the Philippines.”

The earliest published reference in the OED is from Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage (1613): “Those Islands, which more properly beare the Philippine title.”

And here’s another early citation, from Nathaniel Crouch’s The English Empire in America (1685): “A great Ship called the St. Anna expected from the Philippine Islands.”

The country is now known as the Republic of the Philippines, but the Spanish spelling was retained for “Filipino.”

The word is an adjective as well as a noun. The noun is used for an inhabitant of the Philippines (the feminine is “Filipina”) and for the country’s official language, which is based on Tagalog. 

The OED’s first citation for “Filipino” in English is from an 1898 issue of a London newspaper, the Daily News, which spelled it with a double “p”:

“Though there may be no guarantee of American citizenship for the Filippinos, the islands will become a part of the Union.”

The newspaper was referring to the US takeover of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Japan occupied the islands for much of Word War II, but they have been independent since 1946.

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