In a Washington, D.C., bar not long ago, I was ambushed by a very nice young woman drinking a Long Island. We were exchanging the standard get-to-know-you questions: What’s your name, where are you from, what are your thoughts on the weather. While politely parroting these questions back at my conversation partner, I walked into a well-planned sneak attack:
Me: Where are you from?
Her: I’m American.
Me: What state?
Me: So, South Carolina?
Her: No. Colombia, South America.
My new Colombian friend scolded me for misinterpreting “American.” Didn’t I realize, she lectured, how unfair, imperialistic, and U.S.-centric it is for U.S. people to steal the terms “America” and “American” to refer specifically to their country and themselves? She was American, she asserted. I’m American too, apparently, but only to the extent that I live on this continent.
I thought little of it—people are entitled to their perplexing opinions—until a friend complained a few weeks ago that she had suffered similar admonishment from a Costa Rican during a cruise. I asked some Latino friends about it, and they all reported that they personally believe it’s inappropriate for Americans to call themselves “American,” or at least know other Latinos who think this way. Americans have been attacked on this front for decades. “As everyone knows, the right of Americans to be so called is frequently challenged, especially in Latin America,” American journalist H.L. Mencken wrote in 1947.* Today, the battle continues not just in bars but on the Internet. A Facebook group with 1,800 likes assures the Web that America is a continent, not a country. Wikipedia editors have squabbled over it. On urbandictionary.com, the top definition for “America” is: “A country that claims the name of an entire continent to itself alone for no compelling reason.”
So let me say on behalf of all Americans to anti-“Americans” everywhere: We’re not going to stop using “America.” We should not stop. Get over it.
It’s true that “America” is an imperfect word. Its overlapping and inconsistent connotations mean that it is, at worst, confusing in its ambiguity, and, at best, an annoying reminder of the incoherence of language. Usually context can tell you when a person is talking about the rest of the continent instead of the United States, but, admittedly, the fact that it can go either way seems somewhat inelegant. If I could go back in time, I would play a linguistic King Solomon and split the word in two, granting “Ameri” to the continent and “Ca” for the country. I can’t, though, and a mild irritation is not reason enough to build a time machine or kill a centuries-old tradition.
It’s not just linguistic inefficiency that earned me a lecture during trivia night at the bar, though. It’s something deeper. As my Colombian friend told me, Americans calling the U.S. “America” is jingoistic, even imperialist—as if the U.S. owns the whole continent.
I’m not one to trivialize the importance of words and how we use them. The way we use words influences the way we think, and the rise and fall of a word, like a racial or homophobic slur, both reflects and reinforces social change. Let’s face it: Some traditions do deserve to die. That’s why Slate recently changed its editorial policy regarding the local professional football team.
Unlike such slurs, though, Americans calling the U.S. “America” is not malicious. Certainly, the practice coincidentally reflects the U.S.’s world power. But John Adams used “America” to mean the “U.S.” in his first inaugural address, well before the nation emerged as a world power.
Anyway, if it’s anti-imperialist sentiment that drives Colombians to lecture me on this, it would be best if we all divorced “America” entirely. The word itself is an import of Europe, based on the Latin name of explorer Amerigo Vespucci. We might as well rename both the continent and the country using some ancient Aztec words.
The boring truth is that Americans using “America” is not imperialist and jingoistic. It’s just intuitive and convenient, and though it rankles some South Americans (and, most likely, some Canadians and Mexicans too), it harms no one. True, it demonstrates that Americans don’t often think of the entire American continent as a coherent geopolitical entity in the same way they think of Europe. That’s not because they dismiss Latin America, though. It’s because Chile has never invaded Greenland and Canada hasn’t bombed Argentina. The idea of “America” as a continent doesn’t have many practical applications beyond soccer tournaments and plate tectonics.
Yet somehow some Americans have been turned on this issue. “Why this term ‘America’ has become representative as the name of these United States at home and abroad is past recall,” Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote. He proposed Americans use “Usonia” and “Usonian” instead of “America” and “American.” (In Esperanto, the U.S. is called “Usono.”)
“Usonia” and others like it, such as “Columbian,” “Columbard,” “Fredonian,” “Frede,” and “Colonican,” never gained traction, and they never will. Nobody should expect Americans to adopt a name that strays so far from the actual name of their country. Argentines might as well call their country “Argonia” because “Argentina” offends me. Maybe Americans can resolve to always use the full title. “United States of America” has a lot going for it. Its length and cadence imbue it with a certain gravity that you can feel if you remember belting out the pledge of allegiance in elementary school. It’s also a mouthful of a formality, and, unlike “America,” it doesn’t have the pithiness to appear in every piece of music, poetry, and rhetoric that Americans produce. Let’s re-imagine some song lyrics using it:
United States of America, the beautiful …
United States of American woman, listen what I say …
They’re coming to the United States of America … TODAY!
Meanwhile, the briefer “United States” or “U.S.” alone is just a spiritless, generic fabrication, useful for conciseness in news reports but otherwise meaningless. It reduces the country to its abstract political arrangement. It’s like a Brazilian saying, “Hello, I’m from the Federative Republic.” Of what? Where? The “America” grounds the “United States” to the specific, real-world example of these united states, here.
The more pressing question is this: If Americans are supposed to drop the “America” from the vernacular, what should Americans call themselves if not “Americans?” The solution that always seems to come up is “United Statesian.” Are you kidding me? “Statesian” sounds like parseltongue, raises haunting memories of my fourth-grade lisp, and transforms pointed film critiques on American culture into legislative dramas:
Statesian History X
I’ll call myself “United Statesian” when my friend from the Republic of Colombia calls herself a “Republican,” to avoid confusion with Columbia, South Carolina. To all critics of “America” as the U.S.: I know the situation isn’t ideal. I know the Constitution should really read “United States of Some Parts of America Plus Hawaii,” but that’s not how it reads, and lecturing Americans about it on cruises isn’t just pointless but also unfair. Americans have been calling their country “America” for more than two centuries. They will and should continue. Deal with it.
*Correction, Aug. 19, 2013: This article incorrectly stated the year H.L. Mencken wrote about the term “American.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)