America Is One Mixed-Up Word!

America Is One Mixed-Up Word!

By G.T. Finlay


confused-cartoonFew words in the English language have such a diverse meaning and emotion as “America” when used as a substitute for the U.S. As recently as 1991, Webster’s dictionary defined America as “the two continents of North and South America extending from” etc. And that was all! Now it lists U.S.A. as a meaning also. What changed this meaning, and why? In my view, it was George Bush’s prominence in 2000 when he became President. Prominent people, be they head of state in leading countries, or entertainment persons, or just the media itself, influence the use of words, phrases and meanings. Mr Bush almost exclusively called the U.S., “America.” 

The Brits use America 98% of the time. The U.S. Americans use both. The Latinos do not use it at all except when they mean what some call “The Americas”. Indeed, they take it as a belittlement or somewhat of an insult! To them, this usage means the only country in America of consequence, is the giant and overpowering U.S. Most Canadians, I estimate 90%, do not use it, but have seldom thought about why. Of those that have, some will bristle and come on strong like the Latinos. This non use by Canadians is strange given the impact and influence the Brits and the U.S. Americans have had on Canadian history and culture. Is the Canuk emotion similar to the Latinos but too far hidden to recognize?

It was Ben Franklin in his writings before independence that put a name to the founder group. He named it “The United Colonies of North America,” others followed. Later they dropped the “North” Clearly they were not referring to a country called America, because no country existed. It suggests the original use “of America” was to describe and distinguish themselves geographically from the other British colonies all over the world.  It was a geographic name not a country name. One has to conclude that this was still the intent in the Declaration of Independence which just substituted “States” for “Colonies” Even today, the official seals of the U.S. President and the U.S Army read only The United States. 

One might wonder would the U.S. be called “America” today if the founders had kept the word “North” in their name, or if the expansion had stopped at the Mississippi, before the Louisiana Purchase. Would they call two countries “America” if  “The Confederate States of America” had been successful in separating, or if, west of the Mississippi had become a different country?

On a lighter plane, if the U.S. is “America,” does it not mean the northern states of the U.S. are collectively “North America”? Is it not true that Mexico, Canada, Brazil, etc, are more American than the U.S.? All of their states or provinces are within America, not so for the U.S.!

My accent, citizenship, and residency say I am an American. If I were German or Japanese I would be a European or an Asian. But if I call myself an American, I create confusion. Does that make sense?

The reality is, the Brits, and the U.S. Americans are not likely to change their usage. It is too imbedded. I like to assume they are oblivious to the belittlement rather than doing it intentionally. Related to that, over the ages, Canadians have had to swallow how unimportant and hence ignored they are, to and by, Brits and the U.S. Americans. Or at least until they have a war to fight. We are not ignored when they need a partner to shed blood in combat. Canadians and Latin Americans will have to continue to accept we are of “little consequence” to the millions of people that use “America” as a country. Maybe it is just sloppy habits that many have never thought it through. I know it was my business interface with Latin American business executives that jarred my thinking and started my research.

That said, while we must endure usage by others, I am personally very disappointed and saddened when the occasional Canadian  uses it to mean the U.S.. Are they not, in fact, belittling their own country, and others? There was recent survey by the CBC television network. It surveyed 1525 Canadians from all generations and walks of life.  This survey probes among other issues, Canadian views of their culture, whether it is unique, and whether it needs protection to survive.  76% of those sampled replied that their culture is unique and special. They went on to state that their distinguishable culture is to be treasured and defended. 47% percent expressed the concern that their culture can be “completely swallowed up by (read U.S.) American and other foreign cultures”, if Canadians are complacent.

As stated earlier, the media is a powerful influence on the use of words and meanings. If I had to pick one media voice that violates the above distinctiveness of the culture, I would pick the CTV television news department. CTV have more of a U.S. leaning in their content than any other media. Their news contains proportionally more U.S. news than their competitors and others. Indeed, sometimes to the point of reporting U.S. trivia. It follows that there is seldom a newscast when they do not substitute the word America for the U.S.  That is sad, and over time it is bound to influence usage. And it is clearly in conflict with a unique element in our existing culture. It is out of step with virtually all Canadians. Is this what Canadians in the survey feared for our culture when they said “completely swallowed up by U.S. American and other cultures”?


Ojo Del Lago
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