AFTERWORD Names for Americans or the Discriminating Onomastist BY MICHAEL ERARD Editor’s note: Faithful readers of the Observer’s “Dialogue” page may recall a recent exchange over the use of the word “Americans” circumstances, may be “arrogant, lazy, sloppy, ignorant, hegemonic, or bigoted.” The editors responded, nonetheless, that in most conrefer only to the people of the U.S.A.” As the following essay demonstrates, the argument is hardly a new one. Recently, I stumbled over an essay by H.L. Mencken: “Names for Americans.” Mencken, of course, was not only a trenchant editor and commentator on American life, but also studied and wrote about American English. More than sixty years after its first publication, his multi-volume history, The American Language, remains highly regarded. In “Names for Americans” \(first published in 1947 in Mencken considers a problem which has plagued our collective life and language since colonial times: what do we call ourselves? Mencken begins by noting the uneasy history of the conventional term. “The right of ‘Americans’ to be so called is frequently challenged, especially in Latin America, but so far no plausible substitute has been devised.” Not that many haven’t tried the history of neologistic alternatives offered by journalists, poets, politicians, housewives, cranks, hacks, and humorists is nearly as long as the nation’s. Indeed, our nominal anxieties are so old, that as early as 1837, Mencken finds the call-andresponse trope of the argument over “American” already well-worn: “‘What is the name of our nation? Are we North Americans? So are the Cherokees. Are we Anglo-Americans? So are the Canadians. Americans of the United States? So are the Mexicans.'” The writer concludes: “‘We have no distinctive name.'” “United States of America” appeared as the name of a political entity for the first time in the Declaration of Independence, when Jefferson replaced “colonies” with “states.” Only a few documents of the period specified the “United States of North America.” Franklin’s draft of the Articles of Confederation suggested “United Colonies of North America.” “U.S.A.” was established in the Constitution’s preamble, adopted by the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and finally ratified by all the states in 1790. But for one brief shining moment in 1776, the “U.S.N.A.” was engaged in a war with Great Britain, because treaties with the French for some reason included a “North.” In keeping with the treaties, on May 19, 1776, Congress briefly approved “U.S.N.A.” for use on bills of exchange. But on July 11, they changed it back, and we’ve been the “U.S.A.” ever since. The earliest alternatives to “American,” level of a name for a new-fangled cannon.” and melodious’ by its coiner, partly because of its resemblance to “Macedonian” and “Caledonian.” However, the name was ridiculed by everyone else. In 1827, “it was adopted unchallenged as the name of an independent republic that a band of American adventurers sought to set up in Texas.” He mentions also “Unisian,” “United Statesian,” from the satire, since the language spoken in Colonica is “Colonic.” In 1839, the nation was still young, and not the only former colony in the heniisphere. Washington Irving complained, that the French and the Spanish failed to understand him to be an Ang/o-American, and it’s apparent why he insisted upon that distinction. “I want an appellation that shall tell at once, and in a way not to be mistaken, that I belong to this very portion of America … that I am of the Anglo-Saxon race,” he insisted. Forus to be distinct from what he called the “riff-raff colonies,” Irving suggested we change our name to “Appalachian” or “Alleghanian.” “U.S.A.” would have remained untouched. If Irving had prevailed, not only non-Anglo-Americans would have been insulted; Westerners, for whom the Appalachians are distant foothills, eventually would have balked. But in any event, his indignant proposals failed to catch on. \(By the way, Mencken’s essay is also entertaining for its catalog of state-derived names, including the observation that while “Texan” is “harsh, abrupt, ungainly,” and troublesome for poets, it’s Over the years, the Europeans have chimed in too, with “Usonans” \(1892; sary, John Pickering noted that French writers distinguished Americans from Caribbeans by calling us “Anglo-Americans,” partly because “Fredonians” \(who, by the way; spoke sounded too ridiculouS to take seriously. \(The French may have been on to something: in the Marx Brothers’ 1933 film, Duck Soup, Groucho becomes the unlikely President of Throughout subsequent years, periodic at.: tempts to rename ourselves persisted, most posals, Mencken writes, have “shated the dismal fate of all the rest.” Mencken himself prefers. none Of the invented names explicitly, though he cheets the demise of ‘onomastic engineering .prcijects.,1-le also doesn’t endeavor to explain why “American” might be a problem in the -14S becatise he doesn’t in 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 3, 1998 ,
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