America: the “A” word

Amid the patriotic rhetoric that has arisen since the tragedy of 9/11 until this seemingly impending war with Iraq, never in my recent memory has the word “America” been so glorified, symbolized and generally overused.

We have heard it on talk shows, seen it visually displayed, been pounded with it in every recent speech by the President, “They are attacking the American way of life,” he has been heard to say. It is etched into our very social conscience: “America, Love it or Leave it,” “The American Dream,” and patriotic songs such as “America the Beautiful.”

But where does this word come from and why is it applied so uncritically to mean the United States exclusively? What are the ramifications of this usage?

Lets dust off our History Books, shall we? The word “America” came from a German cartographer’s reading of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s trips to the newly encountered continent (which became known as South America; Vespucci never stepped foot in what is now the United States). Over time, filled with a sense of self-righteousness and armed to the teeth with ethnocentrism, citizens of the United States of America began to drop the United States part and refer to our country simply as “America.”

Such ideas are evident in documents such as John L. Sullivan’s “On Manifest Destiny” (1839) where the writer declares,” The American people having derived their origin from many other nations… may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity.” This arrogance remains in sharp contrast to the humility of the great liberators of the Americas.

Simón Bolivar, for example, who bravely fought to guarantee independence for those living under oppressive Spanish rule declared, “Si el destino inconstante hizo alternar la victoria entre los enemigos y nosotros, fue sólo en favor de pueblos americanos que un inconcebilidad demencia hizo tomar las armas para destruir a sus libertadores y restituir el cetro a sus tiranos.” (“If an inconsistent destiny made victory alternate between our enemies and ourselves, it was in favor of the American peoples that an inconceivable lunacy took up arms to destroy its liberators and to restore the scepter to the tyrants”).

I am not a historian, but it seems plain to me: that the first quote excludes and limits the definition of America and the second expands and gives freedom to it.

So let’s get to the heart of the issue: what is so bad with using America to refer exclusively to the United States? We all understand what we mean by that, don’t we?

Well, for the nearly half billion residents in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, the word American includes them. The Spanish word for someone from the United States is norteamericano or estadounidense. It can be often heard that the word americanos refers to all the peoples of the Western Hemisphere. In professional circles, the word American refers to all of the Americas.

For example, a conference held in Cordoba, Argentina, “In Change and Continuity in American Demographic Behavior: The Five Centuries’ Experience. October 27-29, 1998” certainly does not limit itself to a discussion of the United States. To continue this practice of referring to the United States as America not only underscores our ethnocentrism, it offends our neighbors to the south.

Additionally, it not only offends, it perverts their culture values, that somehow they are less American then we are. Ironically, its destructive force is most evident in the Latino communities of our own country. When chicanos refer to Caucasians in Spanish, they call them americanos as if they, the chicanos, aren’t American themselves.

We in the academe have been slowly but surely rooting out inaccurate, offensive or misleading language from our books, our lectures and our speech. We no longer use chairman or refer to women as gals, or hopefully call the developing world the third world. I call for all of us to think the next time we hear or say the word “American” and reflect on its history, its usage and its potential to offend.

Mark Bates

Associate Professor of Spanish