Wednesday, July 16, 2014

America and Americans (p.s. England, Britain & UK!)

Here's an argument that doesn't fit well in 140 characters, but I'm constantly being confronted with it on Twitter (and in real life), so I hope you'll excuse me getting it out of my system so that I can just send people a link from now on.

This is the kind of thing I get:

I suggest you stop calling yourselves American. It is arrogant of people from the United States to call themselves Americans because America is a whole continent. They should be called [insert long-winded or whimsical epithet here].

So, let's break that argument down...

I suggest... It is arrogant...
Individuals from the USA call themselves American because that's the word we have. They typically don't have an imperialist agenda intent on taking over or obliterating other people in the western hemisphere, they're (we're) just using the word that's at hand. But let's unpack this a bit more.

Let's say I meet a young man named Tom Jones. Would it be appropriate for me to say to them "It is arrogant of you to call yourself Tom Jones because there's another one who's older and a much better singer than you!"?  Or "How arrogant of your parents to name you Tom Jones when there already was one!"?

That is, you're telling people from another country what to call themselves, and you think they're the arrogant ones?

America is a whole continent
On the model of continents generally taught in English-speaking nations, America is two continents: North America and South America.  In today's English, these are typically referred to collectively as the Americas. (And loosely, the term Western Hemisphere is sometimes used to refer to the same set of continents, though technically parts of Europe are in that hemisphere too.) There are some contexts in which American is used to refer to people/things from the Americas, as in the Organization of American States--but even they use the plural when referring to the continents: "Today, the OAS brings together all 35 independent states of the Americas" on their English site and (interestingly--is this just because of translation from English?) similar plurals on the Spanish, Portuguese and French pages.

All this is based on the seven-continent model that is generally used in the English-speaking world (and some other places too), but other models are taught in other countries. Another more geologically motivated six-continent model joins Europe and Asia into Eurasia, but still holds North America and South America to be different because they are on different tectonic plates.  The use of models that are more regional, perhaps, than geological, probably accounts for why it's often people from other European countries who write to me to complain about my use of America. (I had wondered why they had so much invested in it.) Wikipedia clarifies:
North America and South America are treated as separate continents in the seven-continent model. However, they may also be viewed as a single continent known as America. This viewpoint was common in the United States until World War II, and remains prevalent in some Asian six-continent models. This remains the more common vision in Latin American countries, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece, where they are taught as a single continent. From the 19th century some people used the term "Americas" to avoid ambiguity with the United States of America.

If the word refers to continent(s), it can't also refer to a country
Most words have more than one meaning. For instance day can mean a 24-hour period or the part of that 24-hour period when the sun is up. We don't insist that people use it in only one way, because it rarely causes us trouble and when there is trouble we have ways around it. Similarly, thinking of other place names, there are two New Yorks, a state and a city. When it matters, we distinguish between them. When it doesn't, we don't. Upstaters like me sometimes get annoyed when people say New York to mean the city and not the state, but we mostly get over it.

(When I travel, and people ask where I'm from, I say New York. They believe city; I mean state.  They don't mess with me; I don't make them listen to a geography lesson. No one suffers.)

So while there's nothing wrong with America or American having more than one meaning, we should acknowledge the fact that it has a dominant meaning, associated with a particular country. (And there are good reasons why that's the dominant meaning. We need to talk about the country more often than we need to talk about the two continents together, at least in English. And also, it's the name of the country--see below.)

Thus, the following uses of America/n are weird in English:

A: I went to America last summer.
B: Oh really? Where?
A: Venezuela.
B: ??
or
Brazil has a population of over 200 million people, almost all of them American.


People from the USA should be called...
This statement is usually concluded with something that no one knows how to pronounce, like USan or USAn or States(i)an or something. More importantly, it's a word or phrase that no one uses, so it'll be hard for anyone to understand your meaning if you start using it to avoid using American. On Twitter, because I need to pack a lot of meaning into a few characters, I do use the abbreviations USer and UKer, which I say in my head as 'you-ESS-er' and 'you-KAY-yer', but I have yet to say them outside my head. (And I sometimes get a little grief for it on Twitter.) I'm more tempted by UKer because of the geographical problems presented by British (see below).


The problem with all this is...
that the name of the country is America to the same extent that the name of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is Luxembourg and the name of the Republic of South Africa is South Africa. That is, official country names are generally the country's name + some description of the political organi{z/s}ation of the country. The description usually (in the English renderings of the name) precedes the country name, so I'll call it a 'prefix'. 

The US and the UK are a bit odd in that the prefixes to the country names are commonly used as names for the countries. So we hardly ever refer to Egypt as the Arab Republic of Egypt and we never refer to it just as the Arab Republic; we call it Egypt. But we do that kind of prefix-only reference to the United States and the United Kingdom. If anything's not fair, I'm going to say it's that. Mexico is also a United States. And United Kingdom is just plain sexist. But we'll muddle through because people understand what we mean when we use those terms (and the UK's proper name is just too much of a mouthful).

(I won't go into the States because I've blogged about that already.)

So I've gone (BrE) off piste in that this is not a US-UK difference. It's not even a bit of American usage that I hear British complaints about. (In fact,  Americans chastise me about it more than Brits do.) I could have just sent you to this Slate post about the same kind of thing. But thank you for letting me get it off my chest. 


P.S.  I'm sure someone would like to point out American misuse of England, British, etc. I'll just pause first to say: there are an awful lot of misuses of British and English in the UK as well and certainly a lot of misuses from countries other than America too. It's complicated. When these issues come up, I send folks to this video:

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

anti-clockwise and counterclockwise

I had to take/make a decision on how to hyphenate the title of this post--it could have been
anti-clockwise and counter-clockwise
anticlockwise and counter-clockwise
            or
anticlockwise and counterclockwise
but I went with (BrE) anti-clockwise and (AmE) counterclockwise because, as we've seen before, Americans are a bit more apt to close up prefixed words when given the chance to. 

@jaynefox requested this one as a Twitter 'Difference of the Day', but since it's been a month since my last post (shock! horror! marking/grading!), I'm easing myself back into blogging with something that can't get too out-of-hand, I hope.

So why do we have different words for going in a circle as if going backward(s) on a clock?  The earliest instance of clockwise in the OED is from 1888 (and it's clock-wise, adding all sorts of hyphenation possibilities). This tells us that its opposite is a good bet for transatlantic differences: the British colonists could not have taken it to America, so each nation was free to come up with its own version. It's not so clear that their origins really were in different countries, though.

The OED's first instance of counter-clockwise is in the same quote as the clock-wise one, from the Times (of London).  Their first for anti-clockwise is from 1898. But should we trust the OED on this one? Probably not. These entries have not been updated in a long, long time and the OED's use of American sources was pretty limited in the early years.


Merriam-Webster has a first attestation date of 1879 for anticlockwise, but doesn't give the source. Its counter-clockwise date is also 1888.

So, I've turned to Google Books. Do you know what? Google Books is a pain. Search for counterclockwise in 19th century books, and you'll find that a lot of books that Google Books thinks were published in the 19th century weren't.  So, searching 12 pages into the results, I've found a few cases of counter(-)clock(-)wise antedating:
I could not find anything before 1880 for anti-clockwise (there's a nautical almanac that Google's dated as 1858, but that particular almanac didn't start publication till 1877, according to Wikipedia...and there are other such mis-datings).  

So, anti-clockwise is looking mostly British, but counterclockwise seems to have been used in England as early as it was being used in the US.  No obvious first coinage here, so we can't tell a tale of different national origins. All we can say is that anti-clockwise never caught on in the US, and counterclockwise quickly fell out of favo(u)r in the UK.

Oh, I suppose I can't leave without saying something about pronunciation.  In BrE the second syllable of anti-clockwise is pronounced like tea. Americans often (but not always) pronounce anti- with a second syllable like tie, which can help in distinguishing it from ante-. Some discussion of the variation in AmE pronunciation of anti- can be found here. For me, it's partly on a word-by-word basis: 'tea' in anticlimax, but 'tie' in anti-Communist.  I think if I form a new word with it (say, if I'm anti-pigeon), I'd pretty regularly use 'tie'. But that's what I think. And we're all pretty bad rememberers of what we do say and we're often bad judges of what we would say.  So, unless someone records me unawares saying antipigeon, we may never know...