Friday - - Mind Games -

Have you heard of Martin Wald­seemüller? Or Matthias Ring­mann? Let me en­lighten you – they were car­tog­ra­phers (map mak­ers) in 16th-cen­tury Ger­many. Now I’ll tell you what they’re do­ing in a col­umn on vo­cab­u­lary, and how they have much to an­swer for in a sim­mer­ing con­tro­versy.

A map they drew to­gether fea­tured a name for the first time – Amer­ica. The word is de­rived from Amer­i­cus, the Latin form of a pi­o­neer­ing Ital­ian ex­plorer’s first name – Amerigo Ve­spucci, who par­tic­i­pated as an ob­server in sev­eral voy­ages that ex­plored the east coast of South Amer­ica be­tween 1499 and 1502, and demon­strated that Brazil and the West Indies did not rep­re­sent Asia’s eastern out­skirts as ini­tially con­jec­tured from Colum­bus’s voy­ages, but in­stead con­sti­tuted an en­tirely sep­a­rate land­mass hith­erto un­known to Afro-Eurasians. In other words, the orig­i­nal ‘Amer­ica’ was South Amer­ica, or the en­tire New World con­ti­nent at best.

There­fore why only the coun­try for­mally called the United States of Amer­ica is sim­ply called Amer­ica, or why only its cit­i­zens are called Amer­i­cans re­mains a mys­tery. Are Mex­i­cans and Cana­di­ans touchy on this sub­ject, as pos­si­bly Brazil­ians or Peru­vians are? Pos­si­bly so – but then, what do they call them­selves? Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans? Cana­di­anAmer­i­cans? That would place them squarely in the league of AfricanAmer­i­cans or In­dian-Amer­i­cans, who are still US cit­i­zens first, that pre­fix be­ing a mere nod to their eth­nic­ity.

Yet, irk­some though it may be that other na­tion­al­i­ties of the con­ti­nent are not de­fined by it in nomen­cla­ture, the last thing they (Cana­di­ans, for in­stance) want to be called is Amer­i­can. Down South it doesn’t mat­ter to cit­i­zens of Brasil (thus spelt) and Mex­ico, that they too are “the United States of …”. Mean­while back in the USA the me­dia would have you be­lieve that the world it­self is en­com­passed by the Pa­cific and At­lantic oceans with the use of ex­pres­sions like bas­ket­ball’s World Cham­pi­onships, base­ball’s World Se­ries, and so on.

But if it an­noys you that Amer­ica is a uni­ver­sally ac­cept­able al­ter­na­tive to USA, and re­mains cel­e­brated in song and po­etry, re­mem­ber: They got there first. And when you’re the rich­est and most pow­er­ful na­tion on earth, you have your pick.

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