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A Groucho Marx listens to the call of Freedonia in Duck Soup fact see much of a problem, particularly when there are rules for special usage. Like and spelling reform, alternatives to “American” are weirdly utopian to those who find able. Mencken quotes Pickering: “The gen eral term American is so commonly understood \(at least in all places where the habitant of the United States, and is so employed except where unusual precision of language is required.” “American” has always been more problematic hemispherically, where the issue isn’t distinctiveness as much as Yankee arrogance. \(The usual charge, made in a dialect descended from classical Latin, goes something like this: “American inscribes U.S. political hegemony in language as a In Spanish-speaking countries, where norteamericano is formally standard, and estadounidense as perennially prescribed as it is popularly unapplied, a variety of informal forms proliferated: yanqui, gringo an macho \(1871; Costa Rica; “variously a jack mule, a billy goat, or a man of large misters and mistera \(western cheles \(in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, literally, “the Still, a formal name is required. For Mencken, the solution belongs first and foremost to English, not to other languages. Thus, he suggests that we need to be able to derive “America” from “United States of America” with a rule that is consistent in this hemisphere. He proposes a rule borrowed from Gabriel Louis-Jaray, of the Comite France-Amerique, in 1928: “The rule is for each nation to be called after the name which follows the word Republic, Empire, United States, etc. The official title of Brazil is the United States of Brazil, and that of the United States the United States of America. Accordingly, the use of American is proper.” In a footnote, Mencken substantiates the rule by providing the names of other Latin American countries. “Argentina is the Republica Argentina, Brazil the Estados Unidos do Brasil, Chile the Republica de Chile, Dominica the Republica Dominicana, Salvador the Republica de El Salvador, Uruguay the Republica Oriental del Uruguay, etc.” Any “plausible substitute” for “American” will fail to fit this pattern. As a dissenter, one could, of course, make the U.S.A. an exception, or perhaps create a new rule, for which the U.S. becomes the sole enforcer. Either way, one would be contradicting and simultaneously reinforcing the conventional political arguments about Yankee hegemony. Q.E.D. But for Mencken, if all other countries follow a linguistic rule, perforce we must also, in our English. Contemporary observers might suggest Mencken escapes a moral hook, by assuming a consensus that may not even exist. One of the writers to “Dialogue,” for example, dismissed the presumed grammatical consensus with, “they’re all going to be white guys I betcha.” Mexicans, Peruvians, and Colombians may well resent being called “white guys,” but the objection does raise an underappreciated problem, that of letting common usage dictate the language, a la William Safire. When an invisible majority a wholly imagined “speech community” is proposed as the presumed final arbiter of linguistic ambiguities, the process may itself be used for unseemly political purposes. And in this particular case, of multilingual national titles, there’s no hemispheric “speech community” at all. Mencken’s logic does distinguish the names of political entities, to which this rule applies, from the names of geographical formations. Unfortunately, “America” happens to name both. However, when we restrict ourselves to naming citizens and residents of a country, rather than inhabitants of a place, we must, indeed, call ourselves Americans. That every other country in the hemisphere follows the same rule makes “American” that much more secure. And everyone else? Already they seem according to Mencken, anyway to know who they are. Austin writer Michael Erard has written for the Observer about higher education, Baptists, grackles, and other topics. And in the words of Kinky Friedman, “He’s a fine American.” JULY 3, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31