Subversive Copyediting

I recently started work as a freelance copyeditor for a textbook company. I’ve so far had two fairly large projects, one a guide for passing a legal examination, and another a freshman rhetoric textbook. In both projects, something has come up that I’ve been struggling with. American. As a Latin Americanist, it’s always troubled me that we don’t have an equivalent English word for estadounidense, literally, a person from the United States of America. We don’t have our own specific word, so we’ve co-opted the regional term to apply to our specific country. As though Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, and Chileans, to name just a few, weren’t also Americans. As in from the Americas. But they all have their own, specific terms in English. In fact, we have a nation-specific term in English for just about everyone but ourselves.

When I was writing my thesis on Bolaño a few years ago, I came up hard against this in all the Latin American theory I was drawing on. Of course, in the English faculty I had to write in English and so I had to find a way to distinguish Latin American from the other part of the Americas. I ended up using Anglo-America, which of course does a disservice to Francophone America, but seemed suitable for the time being. But I had been thinking about this problem, this lack of name for people from the United States of America, much before this.

I traveled to Chile in 2004 for the centennial celebration of Pablo Neruda’s birth. I took the opportunity to do some immersion study of Spanish and had the delight of staying with a phenomenal family of artists. The father asked me, on my first night, why I had come to Chile. It was winter, I was freezing, and everyone else was there to ski. I said for the poetry, of course. I was surprised he had to ask. I think he liked me from that moment, but what really cemented our bond was his next question: where are you from? “Soy estadounidense” I said. I’m from the United States of America. I could have said “Soy americana” instead. I’m American. He pointed this out to me, and I was genuinely surprised then. “Pero, eres americano. Y el es americano también” I said pointing to the Canadian student who had also arrived that day. But you’re American, and he is too. “Todos somos americanos, pero soy estadounidense.” We’re all Americans, but I’m from the United States.

So I’ve wondered for years why it is that we’ve never come up with our own word for what we are, who we are. We, nationalistic sometimes to the extreme. Speakers of the most expansive language on Earth, and with our penchant for invention and innovation. We have failed to name ourselves.

My first impulse was to condemn that claiming of American as our own. A kind of self-important disregard for our neighbors. The narcissism of our national identity, eliding anyone else’s claim to the region. And maybe that’s part of it. But thinking of it now, I wonder if there isn’t also a sense of uncertainty in it too. Maybe we haven’t named ourselves because we don’t know yet what we are, really. We are diverse, complex, and contradictory. We contain multitudes. And so what word could we use to label us all together? Or maybe it’s much simpler than that: Americans is just easy. We couldn’t call ourselves USAins, could we? Or isn’t it just the same as people from the United States of Mexico calling themselves Mexicans?

For whatever reason, we’re unnamed. But that first reading  of it still troubles me, and so in my own writing I take great care to never say Americans when I mean people from/in the United States. Specificity, after all, is the key to good writing. So I always say what I mean: people from the United States have the reputation for being inconsiderate travelers, for example. I had my own run-in just this week in Corfu with a prime example of this: several pushy, obese, and incredibly entitled cruise-ship travelers in the customs line leaving Greece. The ‘fat, ugly American’ stereotype embodied in their fleshy glory. But that’s not fair, then, to the Canadians who on the whole are sophisticated and polite travelers.

My own writing is under my control, and now, as a copyeditor, I’m getting the chance to have my way (subtly, of course, and with respect) with other people’s texts. In the first project I did, I thought it utterly essential to differentiate between America as a series of colonies, and the United States as a nation with its own legal system. So at every place it seemed appropriate I changed America to United States. This second one is harder – the rhetoric is of a different level, and it seems less justified to make that kind of willful change. But where I can, I do.

But c’mon, writers, lets see if we can’t come up with something a little more specific for ourselves. And writers and editors alike could be vigilant about changing our usage of the terms we do have. Rhetoric, as we all know, can change the world.


  1. R

    I’ve got a question that goes back to Amerigo Vespucci.

    When the term ‘America’ was coined, to what did it refer? Just the northern continent, or to both the continents (basically the entire new world)? I think that could make an interesting difference in the exploration of this question.

    If the landmass christened (and yes, I use that term deliberately) ‘America’ only originally meant the northern part of the New World, then would calling South America ‘South America’ be totally wrong of us? What would it be called if it didn’t have an ‘America’ to be ‘South’ of?

    If the term ‘America’ originally refered to the whole known New World, including both landmasses, then this line of thinking is totally on point: All inhabitants of North and South America are Americans, and we identify as political and/or ethnic groups within the term ‘American.’ Canadian Americans, United States Americans, Chilean Americans, and so on. Except that in English, these terms are easily misunderstood, and ‘United States Americans’ doesn’t even exist as a term.

    I’d like to propose that the entire problem isn’t so much semantic, it’s linguistic. Twenty-first century Modern English just doesn’t construct words in the same convenient ways as the Romance languages do. ‘United Statesian’ just won’t roll in English the way ‘estadounidense’ does in Spanish, or ‘statiunitese’ in Italian. (And personally, I wouldn’t use ‘statiunitense’ in a conversation unless it was an incredibly academic discussion and the nuance of the conversation hung on the use of the term.)

    And then we could talk for days about the connotations that tag along when someone talks about ‘America,’ and many inhabitants of the New World may not want that moniker anywhere near them. They may say, ‘No, I’m not American, I’m [insert modern political nationality here].’ When they really mean, ‘I’m not a United Statesian.’

    But the term works fantastically well for academic and literary use to differentiate something particular to the United States of America from other things particular to other parts of The Americas. We just need to find the right Anglicized term. Anglo-America isn’t it, because I feel like that term too leaves loads and loads of people out of the distinction.

    • The history of the name is a fascinating thing. Vespucci never made it to what we consider North America. Not that it really matters, because at the time there wasn’t a distinction between North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean. In fact, the Caribbean island Hispanola was the first part of America to be ‘discovered’ by Columbus. And how many people consider Dominicans or Haitians to be Americans? When “America” was given as a name to the New World, it was still believed to be a single continent, the size and shape of which was undetermined. Columbus, the story goes, believed he’d reached India (hence Indians for the native peoples). It was Vespucci who corrected his mistake, saying that Columbus had discovered a new world. It wasn’t until later that the scope of the ‘discovery’ was recognized. In any case, there’s some evidence that the word “America” is actually derived from the indigenous Carib name for the mountain range of Nicaragua facing the Caribbean Sea. There’s an interesting article on all of this by scholar, poet and translator Johnathan Cohen on the Stony Brook University website:

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