William Urban

At a recent public forum we were told that Costa Ricans are every bit as much Americans as citizens of the United States, and (did I hear right?), therefore, everyone south of the border should have the right to immigrate here. The first part of the message, that we have no right to call ourselves Americans, is something I have heard said often in recent years, usually by individuals who profess themselves to be experts in language and who are very concerned not to hurt anyone's feelings.

Like many nationalities, we did not choose our name on our own. Foreigners needed some way to differentiate us from other English-speaking peoples they met. We Americans used to be known as Yankees, since New Englanders were the only colonials from the British possessions who made it a regular practice to sail the world in search of trade; this persisted after independence, even into modern times (George M. Cohan: "Send the word over there, that the Yanks are coming"). However, that name was not acceptable to a good many inhabitants of the southern states, especially after the events of 1861-1865. (I learned it as Damnyankee, one word, strongly emphasized.) "American" came into general use because "United Statean" does not flow easily from the English-speaking tongue or any other.

If anyone has a good alternative to "American," please share your thoughts. Norteamericano, a common Spanish usage, isn't completely satisfactory, as my Mexican friends inform me, because they are in North America, too. (That doesn't stop them from using it.) Gringo does not bother me personally, but it means educating a lot of foreigners, as in "excuse me, how do I find the gringo embassy?" The Great Satan has a certain ring to it, but is limited to a certain politico-theological orientation. Now that USA, USA is common at Olympic games, it might do for cashing travelers' checks at foreign banks, but it would be hard to say it softly enough not to disconcert people we are introduced to at parties.

It is strange, in these days when grammar is under attack as empowering the educated classes and post-liberals argue that whatever people use as language is okay, that a strict interpretation of the adjective American is applied in this case--rather than going by a traditional usage more than two centuries old.

For myself, Canadian, American, Mexican, and Costa Ricans are adjectives which are easily pronounced, attractive, and instantly understood. Surely, in a world filled with problems, the name used for quick identification of citizens of the United States of America is not among the most pressing.