I was reading a news article on CNN.com this morning about our political allies in Europe, and whether or not our allies should contribute more to subsidizing the defense we provide to them. (Yes, I know, it’s a deep subject, try not to faint. And I’m not going into commentary on it anyway, so you can breathe again now.) Something in the article caught my attention, however, and it’s something that has bothered me for quite a while. It’s the casual use of the word “American”.
How many of you really think of what that means? I was really curious about this, because after all, isn’t the news supposed to be in the business of reporting accurately? So I did a little research. According to Wikipedia, America is the same as the United States of America. Hmm, that seemed too easy to me, as it’s not how I remember it from grade school geography, and anyway, everyone knows you never trust only one source, so I pressed on.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary definition is:
either continent (North America or S. America) of the western hemisphere
or the Amer·i·cas play
the lands of the western hemisphere including North, Central, & S. America & the W. Indies
United States of America
Now definition #2 is a whole lot closer to what I learned in grade school, which as I recall also included Canada. I also consulted my nephew’s girlfriend who is also a journalism major, and asked her to provide me with the correct useage according the AP guidelines which she tells me is what reporters live by. According to her( my new favorite guru!) the correct breakdown is the Caribbean, Central America, Latin America, North America, South America, and West Indies, and when speaking of the United States, then that’s what should be used. CNN, are you (and all of the media outlets, really) paying attention? Or perhaps I should ‘speak’ in the current vernacular of @CNN, or include their hashtag, #CNN. In any case, what gives us the right to such casual appropriation of the word “America”? I will admit, I’ve been guilty of it as well when I say “I’m an American”, although that is true, in the larger context. However when the fourth estate uses the word America interchangeably with United States, that IS incorrect, and I might argue even somewhat arrogant.
Isn’t it possible – even likely – that residents of South America, Jamaica, Puerto Rico or Canada would like to be able to say they are American? (Feel free to weigh in, my Canadian friend!) And by definition, they can, because after all, Brazil is part of South America, Canada a part of North America. And doesn’t the media have an obligation to not only use words correctly, but also to educate? Incorrect use of the word is misleading and uninformed, as well as showing an egocentric cultural bias. Even a very popular television program running on FX has appropriated the label and uses it to refer to the people of the United States. The Americans is about Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Soviet intelligence agents posing as a married couple to spy on the American government during the cold war. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great show, I love tripping back to the 80’s, the chemistry between real life couple Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys is palpable, and the writing is fantastic, but again, using the phrase to describe people of the US is correct only by the default definition that’s become accepted over time.
I realize that our language changes with the passage of years, and the generally accepted definition of a word can change as well. “Gay” is a great example. There was a time when it meant happy, now the most common definition refers to sexual orientation. (Not passing judgment here, it was just the quickest example that came to mind.) However, altering the definition of a word to suit our cultural bias implies an elitism that is inappropriate.
There’s one final point to be made here. If you agree that there is some truth to this, that those who live not only in North America, but South America, the Carribbean, the West Indies, Latin America and Central America also have the right to call themselves Americans, then perhaps you’ll see the absurdity and irony in the recent rhetoric around “building a wall” and “making America great again”. Think about it for a moment, it’ll come to you.