Shakespeare observed that a Rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. So why are we so hung up on words? When I was a boy, to call a person “black” would cause a fight. To be “gay” was to be happy, and an Asian was called an “Oriental.” Back then, Istanbul was Constantinople, Thailand was called Siam, and Iran was Persia. Then again, New York was “New Amsterdam” and Ho Chi Min City was Saigon.
I have always been conscious of language and think of it as far more than a means to communicate; it is a creative tool with which to paint word pictures. I studied semantics at Northwestern University in the United States and have always been fascinated by the power of language. Hyakawa was my idol.
I am a retired executive and ex-mayor from the United States, now living in Catarina, Nicaragua. I am proud to brag that I have my cédula and Nicaraguan Driver’s License, both of which came with great struggle and cost, and were no easy acquisitions. But that’s for another article. I am drinking in my Nicaraguan experience and embracing my new country with much gusto. So I was offended when told recently that I, like most people from the United states, was arrogant to call myself an American. “Don’t you know that everyone from the western hemisphere is an AMERICAN?”, the person chided.
Well first of all, dear attacker, the western hemisphere contains many other countries other than the Americas, although the Americas, as most know, comprise the largest percentage of the land. But that’s not really the point. I only mention it because I was obviously being given a geography lesson as well as a reprimand. I consider arrogance to be one of the most repugnant characteristics in a person, so I was struck to the bone by this criticism. I took it to heart and set out to do something to correct it.
I thought long and hard about it and believed for some time that the person was correct and made sense. Not wanting to appear arrogant or even worse — ignorant — I set out to make it my mission to correct this character flaw, which I thought I must have, and find a better pronoun or term to identify myself. At first I tried, “I am an United Statian.” Wow! That’s pretty tough to pronounce. Also the preposition “an” is even more awkward, albeit grammatically correct.
Then I started to consider the problems others would have: “I am an Afro United Statian”; “I am an Italian United Statian;” or “I am an United Statian Indian,” etc.
And what about the song God Bless America? It would have to be “God Bless United Statia.” I’m sure both Kate Smith and Irving Berlin would turn in their graves. And “America the beautiful” would have to change to “United States the Beautiful.” And what about the American Dollar. It would have to be called the United Statian Dollar.
This lead me to conjure that if Christopher Columbus discovered America, how dare one South American country take the name? Shouldn’t we ALL be Columbians? Divergence is a great defense; so maybe if I diverted the attention to Colombia, people would leave me alone. What a cowardly tactic.
Then I remembered it was Leif Erickson, the Norseman, who was the first European to land on North America nearly 500 years before Columbus. Now we are getting somewhere. If Leif Erickson discovered North America, should people from the United States be called Central Ericksonians? Canada would be North Ericksonia and Mexico would be South Ericksonia. So where does that leave what we now call Central America, since Central America is considered by geologists to be a part of North America? It would seem appropriate that the countries between Mexico and South America be called “Sub-Tropical Ericksonia.”
But, back to America. Were did it get its name? Columbus actually thought he had discovered Asia’s eastern coast and convinced the rest of the world it was so. (Good work, Chris.) But sorry to break the news, it was Amerigo Vespucci (1454 – 1512), an Italian explorer, navigator and cartographer, who first proved that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to Afro-Eurasians, and dubbed “The New World.” But since Vespucci obviously had a better public relations firm and ran a better campaign than Columbus, this second super continent came to be named “America,” deriving its name from Americus, the Latin version of Vespucci’s first name. And as Lily Tomlin, who played Edith Ann, in the TV Comedy series “Laugh-In” would say, “And that’s the truth!”
And then I had an epiphany!! If everyone from the Americas is an American, why don’t the Canadians call themselves Americans? I have never heard a Mexican call himself an American, or a Cuban say “I am an American.” No Venezuelan, Brazilian, Argentinean, Nicaraguan, Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Panamanian or other person from the Americas calls themselves an American! So, I concluded, if no one else wants the name “America,” why can’t the United States have it? And isn’t possession nine points of the law?
So here I am, loving my adopted country of Nicaragua and Proud to finally, unapologetically call myself an AMERICAN!