A group of students and faculty at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) published a “Bias-Free Language Guide” this week. It made national headlines because it called using the word “American” to refer to the United States of America problematic, among several other laughable proposals, such as replacing “poor” with “living at or below the poverty line.”
UNH President Mark Huddleston has already distanced the university from the absurd suggestion and made it clear that this was by no means official UNH policy. Most of the suggestions are more-or-less tailor-made fodder for outraged “anti-P.C.” types, but I want to look closer at two words the guide calls out: Caucasian and American.
First, Caucasian. I always wondered why this is used as a synonym for white or European descent in the U.S. The term itself doesn’t refer to skin tone or ancestry; it means of or pertaining to the Caucasian Mountains and the surrounding region, which was once the southern border of the Soviet Union and is now comprised of parts of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. It turns out that the term “Caucasoid race” was devised by a German philosopher in the eighteenth century and doesn’t have much scientific validity behind it. This is the same sort of faux-scientific movement that gave us social Darwinism and phrenology. People from the Caucasus don’t look anything like most people that “Caucasian” in the U.S. refers to. It’s quite a stupid term in my opinion, and I’d actually welcome replacing it by “European-American” or just “white.” My ancestors, as far as I know, had as much to do with the Caucasus as they did with Mars: nothing.
The term American is much more interesting. When learning Spanish, I first realized that, apparently, some people take offense to Americans using American. It’s an interesting idea. In Spanish, someone from the U.S. is estadaunidense or norteamericano, not americano. Peruvians or Venezuelans may point out that they, too, are Americans. Geographically, yes. But there are a few things at play here. One, English lacks a convenient word besides American to refer to the United States. Frank Lloyd Wright tried to make Usonian happen, but that clearly never took off. “United Statesian” or saying “of the United States” is a clumsy mouthful. Two, while Spanish may distinguish between American and the U.S., many other languages do not. In Ukraine, I was amerikanskiy. In Germany, I was amerikanisch. I think one of the causes of this is how we look at geography. In school, I learned there were 7 continents, such as North and South America. Other countries may learn that there are 5 continents, such as America and Eurasia. That could color a whole way of looking at the world.
Moreover, in all fairness, we were the first country to break away from European rule and declare independence. So if anyone gets dibs on the name America, it’s us.