We the people seem to have a branding problem.
I happen to have been born in the United States. This doesn’t bother me as much as it does some people. I’m thinking in particular of the Europeans who seem to think that stepping outside my country’s borders instantly transforms me into an official spokesperson for its actions and policies. Over the years I have been accused of personally forcing the hapless people of France to suffer the burden of a Disney theme park on their presumably sanctified soil, threatened with deadly force in retribution for being from where I’m from (something about the Middle East) and shrieked at with astonishing viciousness for five minutes that seemed like hours by an insane woman who latched onto me in the street after hearing me speak English (something about… actually I’m not sure she knew herself). During the eight years that seemed like decades of the G.W. Bush regime I adopted the habit of telling new acquaintances that I was from New Zealand specifically to avoid this kind of situation. Then, as soon as I had let my guard down, someone came up with another U.S.-related issue that, of course, turned out to be my responsibility.
This happened at a dinner party where most of the guests had never met before. For this reason, much of the conversation was of the “and where are you from?” and “what do you do?” variety. At one point, while talking to a French woman about my age, I was in the middle of answering one of those questions when she suddenly cut me off and snapped, “You can’t say that!” Her tone of voice was like a grade school teacher scolding a pupil caught swearing on the playground, so I began mentally replaying my recent phrases in a vain attempt to figure out what had caused the offense. As I shortly learned, the term that pushed her fluorescent crimson alert button was: “American.” She went on to lecture me at length: “You can’t say ‘American’ to mean people from the United States. There’s not just you, you know. There are also Canadians, Mexicans, Nicaraguans…”
Ahhh, yeah, actually, I did know. However, rude and condescending as her outburst was, she had a point. My native land has a name problem. Technically, the terms “America” and “American” are shared by 22 other nations, plus almost that many more if you count the Caribbean. Sticking to “United States” for the country doesn’t help because there’s no good way to make it an adjective. (I have a French friend who likes to call me “etatsunisien,” but that doesn’t sound any better in French than “Unitedstatesian” does in English.) And that’s not all: the full official name of Mexico is Estados Unidos Mexicanos and the full official name of Brazil until 1968 was República dos Estados Unidos do Brasil. Yes, the United States of Mexico and the United States of Brazil. Which would make calling the citizens of the USA “Americans” a logical choice.
I asked my fellow dinner guest if she knew that (no), if she had an alternative term to propose (no) and what her own husband, who happens to be American, calls himself (no answer). Apparently she considered her contribution to the betterment of life on earth to consist of magnanimously pointing out where the problems lie so that others could get busy solving them.
Anyway, here we have a country, and kind of a biggish one at that, with three key words in its name, none of which are exclusively its own. So what should we you-know-what-ians call ourselves? In one of his films, Michael Moore jokingly suggests that we call the country The Big One, but that doesn’t yield an adjective either. (Big-one-ish? Bigonian?) We need something better. Readers are cordially invited to submit suggestions, but here’s my idea:
Based on the model of the “BosWash Megalopolis,” a term coined in 1967 to denote the uninterrupted urban zone that supposedly will one day occupy every square foot of land between Boston and Washington DC, I propose a portmanteau word using the names of the outlying states. Considering that the territory of the “so-called” United States of America extends northwest to southeast from Alaska to Florida, and southwest to northeast from Hawaii to Maine, I suggest calling the country “Alflahawma.” It may look odd but it’s not hard to say and makes a nice adjective simply by adding “n”.
Granted, this solution is not without its drawbacks. It kind of implies that British Columbia is part of the union, which (I know! I know!) is not the case, and if Puerto Rico gets statehood, it would ruin the premise. Also, the accent pattern wouldn’t work for revised versions of “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” But we could generate a new patriotic anthem by rewriting the lyrics of “Oklahoma”:
A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-alf — lahawma where the natives sometimes have a brain…
Reader Cony Siguenza writes: “Hello, Mr. Jaggard. I like your column, and I enjoy your style, too. Here is my suggestion. There is a name that already exists: if you say to any Latin American that you are from Gringolandia (Gringoland in English), they will understand. Everybody knows that “Americans” are gringos, so Gringolandia is a logical choice. The ony problem is that South Americans think that Europeans and actually all white people are also gringos, but that is only a detail.”
© 2011 Paris Update
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