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Stateside with Rosalea: What's In A Name?

Stateside with Rosalea

What's in a name?

Even as George II was disentangling his thumb from the handle of one of Elizabeth II's teacups, news of his munificence towards certain impoverished nations was being delivered to my mailbox. "Dear Taxpayer:" the letter said, "We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes."

"Americans" - aah, there's a concept. The 'Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary' - the U.S. copyeditor's equivalent of the 'Concise Oxford' - defines as American: "1: an American Indian of No. America or So. America 2: a native or inhabitant of No. America or So. America 3: a citizen of the U.S." Since the letter goes on to inform me that I'm going to get this tax relief, and since I'm neither a citizen of the U.S. nor an American Indian, I can only infer that this payment is going to all income tax payers who are native to or living in North and South America.

As usual, he's not gone far enough - after all, the very poorest of the poor in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia don't have an income to pay taxes on so they're automatically excluded.

Before you dismiss what seems like facetiousness on my part, please be assured that the use of the words "America" and "American" to describe the United States and its inhabitants is the subject of intense debate in some circles. A letter to the 'U.S. News and World Report' first drew my attention to it, and in a book called 'Talking About People' by Rosalie Maggio I learned that "The American Political Science Association's style manual recommends the use of 'United States, U.S., U.S. citizen, or citizen' instead of the ethnocentric 'America/American' when the country is meant, reserving the use of 'America/American' to refer to one or both continents."

As Maggio points out, the people of some 40 countries (those of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and South America) can correctly call themselves "Americans". But, as she also points out, there is no convenient shorthand term presently available comparable to "Peruvian" or "Canadian", and the Spanish word for "United Statesians" - "Estadounidenses" - probably ain't gonna get saluted if you run it up a flagpole. What to do?

In the case of the letter from the IRS the solution is pretty simple - replace "Americans" with "qualifying individuals". Somewhere in the legislation will be something that defines who those qualifying individuals are. Yet even among those who qualify are many who will not be getting a cheque in the mail as part of the immediate tax relief. Like the letter says: "The amount of the check could be reduced by any outstanding federal debt you owe, such as past due child support or federal or state income taxes."

Is there a comma missing or are state income taxes part of the example of federal debts you might owe? Of course they're not. Which makes it even worse. This letter is saying that even when you are a qualifying individual paying income tax, the feds can give your federal tax refund to the state income tax people instead of to you. In the U.S. you do at least two tax returns - one for the federal government and one for whichever state or states you earned money in. It's part of the fiercely bragged-about and staunchly defended separation of the state laws and federal laws that this great nation was built upon. I smell a Supreme Court case in the wind. Especially since some states don't have income tax, so their residents are being unfairly favoured.

But I digress. The use of "America/American" as synonyms for "United States" and "inhabitants of the United States" is as insidious for its exclusion of large sectors of what the term stands for as the use of "man" and "he" was for its subsuming of half the world's population under one gender, and one alone. When you ask a visiting Nicaraguan archbishop if he would like to be an American - as one local newspaper recently did - you are insulting him. Lack of a "shorthand alternative" is no excuse for Statesism, any more than the lack of a gender-neutral alternative to "he or she" is for sexism. The 'A word' should be rigorously avoided the same way the 'N word' is in public communications.

The controversy that's forming around a new single by Jennifer Lopez is a vivid reminder of how the use of epithets can be seen as appropriate in some circumstances and not in others. "Nigger" is not a word I'd ever use to describe or name anyone, yet I hear the word being used around me all the time within the cultural group where it has its own range of acceptable meanings - young urban blacks. As one very articulate young man interviewed on a morning TV news show this week said, Lopez might be trying to get her "ghetto pass" by using the word in the song, and it might even be acceptable in New York where there is no racial tension between blacks and hispanics, but in Miami - where there is tension - the song could equally be inflammatory.

"Hispanic" is another word that has its problems. According to the Maggio book, the word dates from a Nixon-administration attempt to refine its census classification and was popularised by the advertising industry as a market identifier. It's used to categorise people living in the United States who are from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other Spanish-speaking countries regardless of their individual ethnicity, so can be very offensive to some people. Yet the alternative - Latino - is no better because that carries the burden not only of being ethnocentric but also of being sexist.

The problem of what to call someone living in the United States, instead of an "American", will no doubt vex far greater minds than mine before a satisfactory solution is found, but in the spirit of the new-found accord between Bush and Putin might I humbly suggest as a starting point - "Ussian". "Statespeople" is pushing the envelope just a bit too far.

Lea Barker
Sunday 22 July 2001

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