Turning American

The other day I got an e-mail from a niece about an article she is writing.  The article argues against the use of the word “American”as a demonym for the U.S. (as in an American citizen), a usage she considers ignorant  and egotistical.  In her view, the word should only be used to refer to all people of the Western hemisphere.

It’s probably too late to start worrying about whether people think I’m egotistical, but I don’t want to be ignorant, so I’ve been trying to figure out whether there is a good reason to stop answering “American” when someone asks my nationality.  My starting point, in this, is that in general people are allowed to decide how to identify themselves: if you tell me you come from Israel or Palestine, that you are Native American or Indian, I don’t feel entitled to correct you even if I personally prefer the other term.  So if you tell me I can’t use the usual term for my own nationality in my own language, I will expect to hear a pretty compelling reason why.

The first objection might be that the usage is inaccurate, which in linguistic terms means confusing or misleading (since the task of language is to communicate, not to please some self-appointed expert’s notion of tidiness).  In my experience, this is not a problem: when a journalist asks Orhan Pamuk to recommend a book for “the American President,” he doesn’t have to ask if Obama, Calderón or Chávez is meant.  There are rare instances when one wishes to refer to all residents of this hemisphere, as in “Scholars dispute whether the first Americans arrived 13,000 or 30,000 years ago,” but here context makes it obvious, and if you don’t trust context, you can say “people of the Americas.”

Of greater concern is the social or political objection; some of my niece’s Costa Rican friends believe that the use of “American” to mean “of the U.S.” unfairly excludes them from a designation to which they are entitled.  One might compare this situation to the perfectly valid battle against gender-exclusive terms like “chairman,” “fireman,” and the indefinite “he,” but it seems to me that there is a critical difference.  In these cases, women and their friends argued that the categories of chair, firefighter, human being must include both women and men, and that male and female  were indistinguishable  with respect to the category.

So, are people abjecting to the narrower useage of “American” for the same reason, because they and I should be considered members of the same group?  I think not, but you can test it yourself: next time you’re chatting with a Canadian, say something about “Americans such as you and I” and watch the reaction.  I would advise you to duck.

And my niece assures me that her Costa Rican friends emphatically do not want to be identified in the same group with me and other US folk.  So I can’t use “American” to describe my nationality because it should be used for a group that includes them, but they also don’t really want to belong to a group that includes me, rendering the word basically useless.  Does this not strike you as a rather unfriendly, dog-in-the-mangerish attitude?

Finally, it might be argued that the narrow use of “American” endorses or perpetuates misperceptions that have led to regrettable US policies in Latin America, but I believe that, if anything, a failure to recognize the separateness and autonomy of Latin America has done more damage than our failure to recognize their commonality with us.    Ever since the Monroe Doctrine, and before that for all I know, the US has arrogantly assumed a tutelary privilege or even duty towards our fellow ‘Americans,’ making us even more inclined to manipulate their economies, destabilize their governments, blockade or invade or just generally fuck with them.  Having a blanket term like the broader proposed use of “American” would just encourage this bad habit.

The US is deeply connected to Latin America through the cultural and familial ties of many of our people, but that connection is more to the “Latin” in Latin American than the “American.”  It is also true that one often hears the word American in cringeworthy statements, but it is usually not the source of the cringe factor; for example, it is silly to say “I’m proud to be an American,” and tasteless to sing it during 7th inning stretch, but the problem is with “Proud”—why would anyone be proud of a geographical accident that has nothing to do with their own character or achievements?  It’s like being proud to be left-handed.

Al in all, I’m not feeling the love for US-American or United Stateser.  That said, I should make clear that I am talking about English here, and if I’m speaking another language, I will try to follow the practice of that language.  In the case of Spanish, that may be a challenge because the narrow use of “Americano” is both widespread and controversial; I would ordinarily avoid it out of politeness, but the fact that the Royal Academy dictionary frowns upon it makes me want to use it, because (a) they woldn’t bother pooh-poohing it if lots of people didn’t say it, and (b) Idon’t recognize the authority of anything Royal and I don’t like it when dictionaries turn themselves into etiquette books.  Still, when speaking someone else’s language, I cannot help being ignorant, so I can’t afford to be egotistical.

 

By the way, the title comes from my stay in Berin in 1986, where (if I recall correctly) there were two ways of making a left turn, depending on how far into the intersection you stopped: normal and Amerikanisch wenden.  Another funny use of American is in India, where I am told jewelers distinguish between real diamonds and American diamonds (=zirconium).

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