So, there I was. Sitting in a Melaque café explaining to one of my readers why I use the term”Indian” by relating the Billie story to her.
No teller of tales, no parlayer of parables could have been more in the zone. I was in the sweet spot of stories.
And just as I thought I had Babe Ruthed one out of the park with “What should I be called? I am happy with American. Oregonian. Indian ---,” she interrupted with: “Well, there’s the problem, isn’t it? He’s not an American. He’s a citizen of the United States of America -- or however they say it in Spanish.”
What flashed through my mind will not appear on these pages. I suspect I looked as if someone had just ballpeened me in the back of the head.
For some reason, “American” has reduced a number of tourists and expatriates in Mexico to the level of English professors bemoaning the demise of the subjunctive. But, like most discussions of this nature, this one has a long history.
First, let me confess I value accuracy in word choice. The distinction between “oral” and “verbal” matters. They mean two distinct things. Or they once did.
”America” presents the reverse difficulty. A word that means several different things depending on its context. Such ambiguities are the bane of people who like clear cut rules.
But English defeats the urge to build such castles in the clouds. Any language where a homophone (raise/raze) can be its own antonym is not easily reduced to legalism.
”America” is not a word crafted in the New World. It is an Old World import.
By the time the Europeans figured out they were utterly lost and that South America, at least, was a continent separate from Asia, a German cartographer labeled the continent “America” in honor of the Latin form of Amerigo Vespucci. The Florentine explorer credited with starting to realize the land mass was a tope on the road to China.
The term stuck. Miffing the Spanish who wanted a Columbine name for the New World. In fact, they were so angry that Spain refused to use the term for two centuries. The name was not off to a good start -- even though the English loved it. Partly because it irritated the Spanish.
For most Europeans, the term started as The Americas. A reference to the new continent.
Ironically, the term took on national tones when Mexico and the other Spanish colonies in America started their wars of independence. The Spanish born in the New World called themselves “Americans” to distinguish themselves from the hated, privileged elite born in Spain.
By the end of those wars, most of he Spanish-born heads were either missing or shipped back to Spain, and each of the newly independent countries went on to referring to themselves by their new names. Mexican. Chilean. Argentine.
But nothing can be that easy. A group of liberty-loving colonists rose up against the British lion in 1776, and in 1777 decided to christen their nation “The United States of America.” All of a sudden the name “America” referred to a specific country and “American” to a specific group of citizens. And, generally, the world started using the terms that way.
We now have terms with national and continental implications. But any ambiguities are easily resolved by context. Sometimes America still means the full continent. Such as, corn, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes were developed in America. That obviously means on the continent -- and not in Detroit.
On the other hand, references to American foreign policy can only mean the policy of The United States. There is no other political entity with that name.
And that is why I usually refer to myself as an American. There is no reasonable alternative. The tongue-twisting estadounidense is understood. But, around here, so is americano.
Norteamericano is what my Mexican neighbors call me. Well, they usually make the mistake of first calling me Canadian. That is the default in these here parts for elderly white folks.
I might even change what I call myself. As soon as I hear people stop saying “you Americans” and start saying “we Americans.” Then I will start practicing my tongue twisters.
And if someone born in Mexico City wants to call herself an American, I will say: "You certainly are."
In the end, of course, all of this is rather silly. Jonna hit the nail on the head in yesterday’s comments: “As to the British distinction between Indians. I have 2 friends who are a couple, one is an American Indian (how's that for non PC? but it is what he calls himself) and the other is a Hindu. They refer to themselves as the 'dot and feather' couple.”
Billie, my American Indian co-worker, would have chuckled and approved. As he got into his Honda with the “Buy American” placard in the back window.