It’s time to give ourselves an old name.
The New York Times on July 6, 2007, ran an opinion piece written by Martine Rousseau and Olivier Houdart, editors of the French Web site Le Monde, commenting on the word “American” and the lack of a better term for a citizen of the United States. It’s a problem that bothers me because calling ourselves Americans is at best imprecise, as Rousseau and Houdart observed, and at worst ignorant and presumptuous. Residents of Latin America, Rousseau and Houdart wrote, find it offensive when we call ourselves “Americans,” and I can see why.
Residents of most countries bear names that are offshoots of the country’s name: England/English, Java/Javanese, Sudan/Sudanese, etc., but calling a citizen of the United States an “American” is like a Frenchman saying he speaks European or a chess player saying he plays a board game — in the broadest sense it’s correct, but it is imprecise and ignores by implication our Canadian neighbors to the north and those to the south from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego.
“Americans” has a long history, having been used by European powers to refer to their colonial brethren. Most residents of other countries, as far as I know, call us Americans. But neither history nor common usage is excuse to continue an imprecise and offensive usage, and it’s time to change.
So what should we call ourselves? Rousseau and Houdart say that Quebec residents call us “Etats-Uniens, from Etats-Unis, French for United States, but they say, and I agree, the term is neither pretty nor musical. Other suggestions included Usaniens or Usiens, but those sound bizarre.
I thought of US-ers, but that’s uglier than the suggestions by the French, and our name should be simple, poetic and historical. Then it struck me. The capital of our country is the District of Columbia. Columbia has long been an unofficial nickname for the United States. Paintings of a female Columbia were popular in the 1800s, and the song “Hail Columbia” was the de facto national anthem, according to the Library of Congress, until the 1890s. Its words, written by Joseph Hopkinson, were set to the tune “President’s March,” written by the violinist Philip Phile in honor of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789.
“The World Book Encyclopedia” in its entry “Columbia” says, “Long before the Revolutionary War, many people felt that America should have been named Columbia after its discoverer, Christopher Columbus. During the war, poets in the 13 colonies used the name Columbia to describe the new nation that was to become the United States. The word was first used by Phillis Wheatley, a Negro slave poetess in Massachusetts, in a poem honoring George Washington. Philip Freneau popularized the term in several poems during and after the war. It appeared first in law in 1784 when King’s College in New York City became Columbia College. Towns, counties, and institutions throughout the United States have since adopted the name.”
Columbia takes its name from Christopher Columbus, who (re)discovered the Americas, so we again have that problem of appropriating a broader name for our use and as usual of ignoring the native tribes, but Columbian is not used by other countries and is distinguished from the South American Colombia by the spelling. “Columbian” is defined in Webster’s New International Dictionary,” Third Edition, copyright 1961, as a native of the U.S., so it’s not a new appellation, just little used and largely overlooked in recent decades.
I think it’s time to haul “Columbian” out of the archives of the Library of Congress and the neglected pages of Merriam-Webster. It’s time to set aside our conceit, perceived or otherwise, and demonstrate through a simple word that we know we are but one country in a world community. Never again will I use the term “American” to refer to a citizen of the United States. I would like to see the rest of you Columbians do the same.
- American Indians
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