What Does “American” Mean, Anyway?

June 14, 2007

 First, Harry Reid referred to 12 million “undocumented Americans“.  Watch it:

Second, the uproar! [1], [2], [3], [4], [etc.]

Then, while I was out grabbing lunch yesterday, I heard Rush Limbaugh take a call from someone (named ‘Carol’, I think) who claimed that the phrase was technically accurate.   Argument being?  Well, everyone living on the North or South American continents are “Americans”.  Rush was stunned.  In fact, he even felt he had to call the woman back (which he claimed was a first for his show).

Now, I know that Reid was probably making the characterization out of political correctness or whatever.  “Illegal aliens” just sounds so, well, threatening and mean after all.  Or, maybe he was stating in the context that these people are actually contributing to “American” life in some shape or form, but are suffering from the handicap of being ‘undocumented’.  Put that aside, and I think there is something to be said about ‘Carol’s’ argument however…

Of course, there’s the whole issue of colloquialisms and semantics.  When someone says “I’m an American”, they usually assume that you are a citizen of the USA.  But “America” (the continents) were named well before the United States existed.  Have we just monopolized the term?  I mean, someone from France is as much French as they are European, right?  Same would go for a man living in the Congo would be considered African?  Is the term “American” in use to describe a citizen of the US just an acceptable inaccuracy?  Is a Canadian really just as “American” as I am? 

Is this a silly topic for a post?  I don’t think so.  I think I could get a lot sillier.  This “American” thing gets weirder, if you really think about it.  Here we go…

A commonly accepted euphemism for a black person is “African American”, right?  But is that an accurate description of race?  I mean, it would seem a little odd from a logical point of view to call the aforementioned man from Congo an “African American”.  Even stranger would be to call a white US citizen who immigrated from South Africa the same thing, even though it would seem to be more technically accurate than the previous example. What about “Native American”?  That would refer to the group of people who can trace their lineage on the continent back to before European colonization.  That term appears to be much more logical. 

Uh oh.

Well, technically, the majority of Mexicans can make the same claim.  From a certain cultural-historical-geographical point of view, most of those 12 million illegal aliens can say that they are more “American” than I am.

So there.  That’s my silly little deep thought of the day, even if I haven’t really answered the question.


  1. This is easy, when we talk about the citizens of the United States Of America we call them Americans. We don’t call them USA-ers or USA-ites.

    Of course…everyone that lives on the continent of America are technically Americans. But Harry Reid wasn’t using the continental vernacular, he was using the nationalistic vernacular.

    By using the nationalistic vernacular you can refer to all French nationals “Europeans” but you can’t refer to all Europeans “Frenchmen”.

    Harry Reid doesn’t understand the dichotomy between “nationalistic Americans” and “continental Americans”…

    …or does he? Hmmmm?

  2. When I heard Reid’s comment I took it to mean “nationalistic Americans”, but he does have an out if he wants to take advantage of it: “When I said ‘American’ I was referring to our continent.”

    As for Rush Limbaugh, the other day I was struck to hear him say, “Humans are not primates.” Maybe he meant it to mean “Humans are not monkeys”, which technically is true. I have heard people conflate “primate” with “monkey” before. At first I took it to mean he was denying evolution. Maybe he was.

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