Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

My Use or Return to the Use of the Term “American”

My use or return to the use of the term “American” has a long story behind it. On the most obvious level, I—like most of the European world—use the word “American,” for better or worse, to refer to U.S. Americans. When I moved to France some 3 years ago, I attempted to a personal “coup de grace” in using the term “américain.” For awhile, I tried to using a personal, Spanish-inspired neologism “etats-unisien,” which exists in writing but I have never heard in speech, besides my own. And of course when I said this word “United-Statian,” people were confused by this word and by this foreigner creating a new word. I would also sometimes say that “je viens des états-unis” (I come from the United States). In both cases, what would usually follow immediately was the question “oh you’re American?” Depending on my mood, I then explained to them, in an attempt at raising awareness, that there is a difference between an American (which in normal discourse refers to U.S. Americans) and America as a larger concept including North and South America and their respective people who could be referenced as Americans too. As such, the term “American” shouldn’t “really” be the personal use of U.S. Americans. And while I still agree that “American” is a biased and loaded term, there are at least three reasons why I returned to using “American” and not forcing other words like U.S. American and such. The first reason is purely aesthetic. In Spanish, especially in Latin America (Spaniards seem in my experience to still use the term “Americano.”), there is no problem in sound or politics in using a word like estadounidense. Unfortunately, the French mouth and the French language are not so welcoming with such a word. Even the French have trouble saying my neologism etats-unisien. Personally, I can’t see myself saying “United Statesian” in English. And being that I rarely speak English with English-speakers these days, I’m not sure what other English-speakers could propose as a replacement to American, especially a replacement that is both easy to say and easy to listen to. Being that I generally only speak English when I teach English, I’m stuck using the word everyone else uses. As a teacher my role is to teach the language as it is used, not as I think it should be used. And in all honesty, it isn’t as though people using the word American are intentionally forgetting the rest of the Americas; they are simply referring to the United States of America when they say American. There are other words for other countries and their respective peoples. For me and for most speakers in French and in English, to say American is to refer to a person from the United States. To refer to someone from Europe or Africa, we can say European or African. Likewise, to refer to someone from North or South America, we can say North American or South American or, if you want, Latino American. We can’t say North American and be referring to U.S. Americans. I suppose the easiest solution in English would be to say U.S. American. This is not a solution in French, because in French you’re stuck with a whole mouthful “un américain des états-unis.”

The second reason is that not all contexts call for a “raising of awareness.” What I mean is that in order to learn about people and what they think when you live abroad as an life-long ethnologist, you have to sometimes put your personal belief aside, at least initially, when you talk to people. Most people don’t know that I’m American when I speak French. I don’t have the typical Anglo-Saxon accent in French and as such, they usually think I’m Spanish, German, Belgian or some other European. I don’t wear a t-shirt saying I’m American either so I’m often privy to hearing some things that other U.S. Americans are not. I’m not hiding the fact that I’m American. It’s just that people don’t recognize me by my clothes or my accent. When I eventually say where, there is a moment of surprise on their part, which is usually followed by a remark on how according to their stereotype or according to their experience “most Americans are like this…” and not like me. In any case, what I’m trying to say is that when I use a term like “united statesian” or U.S. American I’m provoking a political stance, which some people don’t care about. Depending on the context, I prefer to learn about the world and what people think and say than to project on the world simply what I think and believe.

The third reason I returned to using the term “American” is both historical and related to the naming of the United States. As far as I know, the United States is the only country to use America in its official title, United States of America. This refers to the fact that the United States is a federal State, a unification of still semi-independent states. There isn’t a Mexican or Canadian States of America. There is only the United States of America. In forging an independent nation, the founding fathers and mothers chose a name for the country. This name came with the obvious connection to the peoples of that place and lands, peoples of the United States or simply Americans. In conclusion, I’m not saying that there isn’t good reason to critique the use of Americans in the same way we may use a term like Herstory to critique History. Like Herstory and feminism, which makes us reflect on the male-bias in history and literature, the use of alternative terms like U.S. American helps us to better put in context the geopolitical world and its U.S. American-bias. But in terms of ordinary language, Herstory is not going to replace History (the historical origin of the word history has nothing to do with “his” anyways). Likewise, the use of neologisms like U.S. Americans or états-unisien isn’t going to–nor should it–replace the term we use everyday “Americans.”

[This entry was originally written as response in another blog.]