The Spelling Voodoo

Bob Corbett

The name of the Haitian religion has many spellings. I have chosen to use "Voodoo." Many other spellings have been used in the literature over the years including Vodun, Vodou, Vodoun, Vaudou, Vaudoux.

Each of these is an attempt to spell the word in a way which represents how it is pronounced in Haiti. Actually the word is seldom even used by Haitians. They do not refer to the religion by the name Voodoo, but speak of people "following the loa," or "serving the loa."

In recent years some scholars have despaired of getting Americans over their ridiculous and negative images of Voodoo created by sensationalist tales, Hollywood movies and popular culture. One tactic has been to avoid the spelling Voodoo in order to call attention to the fact of something different because of the unusual spelling.

Normally I think this is a decent tactic, and I find myself much enamored of philosophers like the German existentialists who use this tactic in their philosophizing. But, I have chosen NOT to use an alternative spelling, but to stick with Voodoo, the most common spelling in English, simply to recognize that spelling as dominant. Yet I do hope to correct the false, racist and anti-Haitian images connected with this word.

I capitalize the word throughout. The names of other religions--Christianity, Judaism, Islam, are always capitalized. Voodoo should be treated in the same fashion as other religions.

From James Leyburn. THE HAITIAN PEOPLE 1941.

See p. xxv and xxvi of intro to Price-Mars SO SPOKE THE UNCLE 1973 English edition.

Translator Magdaline W. Shannon gives the following argument and list of various spellings:

"After much deliberation and thought, I chose to translate 'le Vaudou' as Voodoo, though this English word seems to be objectionable to Professor Simpson and most probably is to all of his colleagues who have completed extensive research in this field. While I respect their concern I am taking the liberty of differing with them, and in the following paragraphs I offer my explanation for doing so.
"In his preface to LIFE IN A HAITIAN VALLEY (1937), anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits expressed the hope that the use of the term Vodun (meaning 'gods' in ancient Dahomey) to describe the religious beliefs of the Haitian peasants would replace the word Voodoo used by popular American writers in the first part of the twentieth century. Although the English author, Sir Spenser St. John had employed 'Vaudoux' in his work in 1880, he emphasized the sensational aspects of these Haitain beliefs and distorted the facts just as did the later American writers such as Seabrook, Wirkus, Craige, and Taft. The American sociologist James G. Leyburn followed the example of Herskovits in THE HAITIAN PEOPLE (1941), while other anthropologists used various spellings as Vodu, Vodou, Vaudou, Vodoun, and Vodun.
"Dr. Price-Mars uses 'Vaudou,' I believe, because he wishes to distinguish the Haitian variant from similar African beliefs and practices. He quotes from Moreau de St. Mery, one of the most reliable early sources (1797), who states that Vaudoux as it exists in Saint Domingue is not just a dance but is a religious cult. Other Haitian writers however do employ other terms, while French authors seem to prefer Vaudou. The English translation of the term as in Alfred Metreaux's LE VAUDOU HAITIEN (1959) is VOODOO IN HAITI; Roger Bastide's AFRICAN CIVILIZATIONS IN THE NEW WORLD, translated from the French (1971), uses the spelling Voodoo. The social psychiatrist Dr. Louis Mars, son of Price-Mars, has an English translation (1977), of his study on 'possession' entitled THE CRISIS OF POSSESSION IN VOODOO. American historians, such as George Tyson, Jr., TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE (1973), and Thomas O.Ott, THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION (1973), use Voodoo as does the British political scientist David Nicholls in his articles and in FROM DESSALINES TO DUVALIER (1979). Similarly the Haitian-American scholar Michel Laguerre choose Voodoo and unlike the assessment of the Belgian priest J. Verschueren in 1948 seems to have had no compunction in assigning Voodoo to an important role in the Haitian social and political state in his recent works. The English translation of Janheinz Jahn's MUNTU (1961) from the German language refers to Haitian Voodoo. Finally, the Library of Congress in its National Union Catalog employs Voodoo to identify the subject in reference to foreign words.
"Thus, one of the most compelling reasons for selecting Voodoo for the French word Vaudou in this translation of AINSI PARLA L'ONCLE, the classic study so long unrecognized in the English-speaking world, is that it is the word that Americans seem to have adopted for better or for worse despite efforts to eradicate its pejorative meaning by using the original variants of the term."

From: Leslie G. Desmangles. THE FACES OF THE GODS. 1992.


There is much academic disagreement among scholars about the name of Haiti's folk religion, and about the orthography of the word vodou. The common term voodoo, a distortion of the Dahomean (or Beninois) word vodu (meaning "god" or "spirit"), has been used by many scholars (Deren, Laguerre). But unfortunately, in popular literature and films the term voodoo has been misconstrued as sorcery, witchcraft, and in some cases cannibalistic practices, all of which are false and have kindled many foreigners' prejudices not only about Vodou, but about Haitian culture in general. Other scholars have used the term vodun or vodoun (Leyburn, Mintz, Davis, Courlander) in order to dispel popular misconceptions about the religion. Although I have used vodun in the past, *I adopt Vodou for this book because it is phonetically more correct, and because it corresponds to the nomenclature used by the Haitians themselves for their religion. Until 1986, Haitian Creole had no official orthography, Hence, both Haitian and foreign writers were left to their own devices in developing their systems of phonetic transcriptions. Many (Price-Mars and Paul, among others) have been influenced heavily by French orthography, using the francophone form vaudou in their writings. But the current method of phonetic transcription developed by Yves Dejean-the method most widely accepted by Haitians and used in elmem*my s*oo*ds in Haiti since 1986-suggests that the correct spelling of the term is the one I have adopted. Likewise, because Haitian Creole possesses no complete dictionary, there is no official orthography for all the words in its vocabulary. Hence, the phonetic transcriptions of unwritten (or unrecorded) Creole words used throughout this book approximate the orthographic method suggested by Dejean.

See page 265 of Lawless' Bibliography for an account of modern scholars and how they spell Voodoo.

See p. 113 of Leyburn for good argument about the spelling of the word.

See p. xxv and xxvi of intro to Price-Mars SO SPOKE THE UNCLE.

See p. 49 Sir Spenser St. John. He uses Vaudoux.

See: Lawless. Haiti's Bad Press. p. xii. He uses Voodoo. Also see p. 73

Some discussion we've had on my Haiti e-mail list:

10 Sep 1997

Leslie Desmangles

One other person not mentioned has used the word Vodou: Karen McCarthy-Brown in "Mama Lola".


11 Sep 1997

Carrol F. Coates

To add to the list, I have used "Vodou" consistently in the last several years in both translation and in the editing of the JOURNAL OF HAITIAN STUDIES. I have managed to get this accepted by the University Press of Virginia (for translation of Haitian novels) in spite of the fact that "voodoo" is in the 3rd edition of the MERIAM WEBSTER'S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY.

Carrol F. Coates
Romance Langs/Lits--SUNY
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000


Randall Morris

Given what Pierre-Pierre asks us to do I could change what I said a bit and just say possibly that the reporter accurately reported the tragic ruminations of people in shock and trying to come to terms with what happened. There should have been more context in the article though. Not everyone reading it would know these things about Vodou.


Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

The New York Times resisted "Negro" for negro, and it took a long time to come up to speed on that one. Similarly with gay and lesbian, "Ms." But the New York Times writes Judaism, Shinto, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism....Why the discussion about Vodun? (My spelling in my books and articles, and that of Dr. Guerin Montilus).


Date: 11 Sep 1997

From: Janet Higbie

As the copy editor who handled the Times article in question, I'd like to weigh in on the questions raised by the references to Vodou in Larry Rohter's coverage of the ferry disaster this week.

I'm going to part company somewhat with my esteemed colleague Garry Pierre-Pierre. I don't agree that this discussion is nitpicking or that it should be stopped. One posting seemed to me unfair, but people have the right to question and criticize The Times and other newspapers -- we all learn from that. I edit a good many, in fact most, of the Haiti articles that go into The Times, and I can't begin to say how much this message list had helped me in that work, directly and indirectly.

In large part because of the concerns expressed by this group, I look very carefully at any references to Vodou in stories that cross my monitor, looking for inferences that are condescending, sensational or racially or culturally biased. I did not see any of that in this piece. True, I couldn't spend a lot of time reflecting -- I had approximately 15 minutes to read the story, check for factual errors, fix spelling, add a gazillion accents, subtract garble from the Haitian telephone system, cut the story to fit the various editions and write a headline. The Vodou reference was secondary -- most of the piece dealt with the sinking itself, the recovery efforts and the larger issues that have been discussed here -- Haiti's lack of transportation infrastructure, official corruption and overwhelming poverty. But the reference to competing ferry operators invoking the loas against a new, upstart competitor in rural Haiti seemed plausible and valid to me, particularly from a diligent and experienced reporter who had ridden those ferries and written about these issues before. I did make a couple changes -- including describing Vodou as "Haiti's traditional religion," to make clear that it's not about fetishes and working spells. In retrospect, that might have blurred the line between religion and cultural practice made by many on this list but hey, some of the fine points get lost at high speed.

On the spelling and capitalization question -- personally, I couldn't agree more. I'm delighted to see it raised, as so often I'm accused of "political correctness'' when I raise this kind of thing myself. However, The Times, like other newspapers, has an established style governing word usage, spelling, punctuation and other matters. The aim is consistency and clarity; I can't go off on my own and do things any old way. And the Times stylebook establishes "voodoo."

That stylebook is undergoing a revision and last year, when staff members were asked to make suggestions for changes, I, with electronic input from the two other Times employees on this message list, proposed that the V be capitalized as for other religions. We also suggested the spelling Vodou, as I recall, saying that the double o's had a primitive, "exotic'' feel reminiscent of 1920's tabloids and bad adventure novels. I never got a response and as far as I know, the style didn't change. But if there's no objection I'd like to give it another try and submit some of the postings from this recent Corbettland discussion, especially by Desmangles, to the Times editors in charge of setting style, to give them a fuller understanding.

Janet Higbie

The difference between the English ad Creole spelling.

I must disagree with Carrol Coates with whom I am normally not only in agreement, but to whom I often go for information and help. However, we're back on the issue of the ENGLISH spelling of the name of the religion of Haiti, and on this point we disagree.

Carrol raises two arguments:

  1. the name of a religion is a proper name and as such it should be capitalized.
  2. the preferred spelling IN ENGLISH in Vodou because that is the official HAITIAN spelling.

The arguments I am addressing are the spelling of the Haitian religion in English, not in Haitian Creole. I think Carrol and I are in no disagreement about the spelling in Haitian Creole.

The first argument is certainly true and one of my own campaigns has been to get people to recognize this fact. I spell the religion's name Voodoo. Since voodoo if often written by people who know English grammar well one can assume they are not making a simple grammatical mistake. Rather, spelling the religion as voodoo strongly suggests that they do not see it as a religion. There is a sense of the word in English which does not refer to the religion, but to a practice of magic.

In the same sense that we write "black magic," "witchcraft" and other such words often properly with small letters they do not refer to a religion, but a folk practice. I've noticed (with great approval) some of the experts of Haitian Voodoo on this list writing voodoo with a small "v" when talking not about the religion, but about certain practices which are often referred to by folks loosely as related to the religion when these commentators don't see these practices as related to the religion at all.

Thus on the issue of using a capital "V" (no matter what letters then follow), I would argue that when one is referring to the religion of Haiti a capital "V" is demanded by the standard rules of English grammar and to fail to do so when referring to the religion is either mistaken grammar, or a stand that the practice is not a religion -- which I would then argue is a completely mistaken assumption.

I think Carrol and I would be in agreement on this issue.

But, are there practices in Haiti (or elsewhere) which are referred to as voodoo practices which are not part of the religion and thus should not carry the capital first letter signifying the name of the religion? I believe there are.

The only example I can think of right at the moment isn't a very good one, but we do have the common adjective "catholic" to mean the same thing as universal as in the phrase, "she has catholic tastes in literature." The parallels are not exactly alike there since one doesn't confuse "catholic tastes" with things to do with the Catholic religion, whereas the Voodoo/voodoo usage does carry that confusion.

Our major difference however, is on what follows the "V" when speaking or writing English about the religion of Haiti. I use and prefer Voodoo, Carrol uses and prefers Vodou.

Vodou is for me a word in Haitian Creole and in the rare cases when I'm writing (badly) in Haitian Creole I use the word Vodou. When I write in English I use the standard English spelling of long-standing. It is not the word in Haitian Creole I'm quite aware of that. When I write home from here in (English words) VIENNA, AUSTRIA, I would not think of writing to my English language friends that I live in Wien, Osterreich. But that's what everyone here writes. And no one pronounces the name of this city as we do when we say Vienna. They use Wien (pronounced Vien) were one to say it in English. The major city of Italy in English is Rome. In Italy it is Roma.

Behind the position which Carrol articulates is an important objection which he doesn't raise here, though he has often raised it eloquently in earlier posts. The image of the Haitian religion Voodoo/Vodou in the English speaking world and especially in the U.S. is often extremely wrong-headed, very negative, even such that the religion is regarded as a laughing stock or as a barbaric practice. This image is part of a much larger negative image associated with Haiti and Haitians and those of us who care for Haitian and Haitians, or are Haitians have a care and interest in changing that image in the English speaking world.

Carrol and I are in no disagreement about that aim. Both of us have demonstrated that in past posts and published writings.

However, we are in disagreement as to whether a useful and important part of that re-imaging of the Haitian religion, the Haitian nation and the Haitian people is best served by trying to change the normal centuries old word for the Haitian religion in English. Coates thinks so; Corbett doesn't.

I would like to go on for many pages and hours about my own reasons for why I vehemently reject the tactic of changing the normal, acceptable and familiar English spelling. But, those arguments go far beyond Haiti and are concerned with much larger issues in the philosophy of language and in the philosophy of human responsibility. These arguments have nothing to do with Haiti.

I'm certainly willing to discuss these issues IN GREAT DETAIL with any who are interested, but not on this list which is about Haiti and not about these larger these other issues. But in just some undefended assertions (for which I have an huge array of defenses ready at hand), my objections are centered in several things some being:

And on and on.

In relation to Haitian Voodoo (as I term it), I have tried to wage my own mini-war against the negative false stereotypes. I pleaded with the religion department of my university some 15 years ago to allow me to teach a course on the Haitian religion and they welcomed this. It is one of the many options in the study of world religions the department offers. In that course I tell my students that the primary task of this course is to demonstrate that the religion of Haiti is a religion is the same sense as any other major religion they know of such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam and that we will study it as such.

And then we do that in a very serious intellectual investigation. I think I can say that virtually ALL my students come out of that course not with some (for me) utterly trivial shift of how they spell the word, but with a profound respect for the Haitian religion even though they usually find it to be far from their own faith if they have any. I'm never out to convert people, only to inform and enlighten them. Perhaps it helps that I am an atheist and have no use for any religion as a faith. But that doesn't mean I don't want to understand it as it is rather than as what it is not.

Secondly, I mounted a large web site on Haitian Voodoo to which I keep adding all the time. In the fall term I will be offering my course in Haitian Voodoo here in Vienna, Austria (not in Wien, Osterreich), the first time such a course has ever been offered in this important European capital and already I've heard from the registrar that the course is completely filled and students are begging to get in. I'm in a terrible quandary. I like small discussion oriented classes, but were I to change this one course to a lecture format I would probably have several hundred students in a flash. I'm undecided at to whether I go for the higher quality education I can provide with a discussion format, or go to have the wider impact on Austrians' minds. Not an easy decision for me.

In any case the teaching of this course will be an impetuous to me to add significantly to my Voodoo web page, a page that attracts a significant number of visitors who write me constantly about thing Voodoo (from serious inquiries about the religion to wanting to know if I sell spells).

There are many other ways to address the problem of Voodoo's negative image which other people, many on this list I'm sure, use. All of them are important. The only significant problem I have with the spelling issue is now closely allied it is the to political correctness movement, which, on my own view, is so destructive of intellectual freedom and of good sense that such a tactic is just not acceptable to me. Nor am I convinced that trying to force upon a language a new spelling for an old word in the language is of much value.

Any wishing to discuss the larger non-Haitian issues contained in this discussion please don't hesitate contacting me. It is one of the issues I am most interested in concerning contemporary moral notions of the use of pressure and force to seek goals that are otherwise laudable.

Bob Corbett


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