To the potential dismay of countless Latin Americans, regional etymologists and local language lovers, Argentine President Cristina Fernández referred Monday to U.S. citizens as “americanos” and not “estadounidenses,” or, more commonly, but less accurately, “norteamericanos.”
“When few or no Argentine tourists came here, this place filled up and continues to fill up with Spaniards, French, Germans, Americans, Englishmen who came to to visit…,” Fernández said in a speech at the Calafate glacier in Santa Cruz Province.
Here’s the text in Spanish:
“Cuando poquísimos o casi ningún turista argentino venía acá, esto se llenaba y se sigue llenando de españoles, franceses, alemanes, americanos, ingleses que vienen a conocer … aquí vienen de todo el mundo.”
As many native English speakers know from personal experience, some Argentines – and, of course, some Latin Americans – take offense at such use of the term “americano,” believing (correctly) that when formally used in Spanish it refers to all residents of the Americas, not just citizens of the United States.
Like it or not, however, many – perhaps most – Latin Americans, particularly those living closer to the U.S. in countries like Costa Rica, Colombia or Mexico, commonly refer to U.S. citizens as “americanos.” The vast bulk of Argentines I know use the term this way. I know very few Argentines who regularly use the term to refer to all residents of Latin America.
Regardless, usage of the term has generated fierce debate on the streets and in the online world, including on the pages of this blog.
I first learned about the distinction while sitting in the Plaza de Mayo in the summer of 1995. A young man approached me and asked where I was from. “I’m American,” I said, thinking very little of my use of the term. “You’re not the only American here,” the man responded, angrily. “You Americans think you rule the world. We’re all Americans. But you wouldn’t know that, would you, because you think you’re the center of the world.”
In fact, I didn’t think the U.S. was the center of the world. Nor did I think the U.S. ruled it. I had no idea my innocent – if ignorant – use of the term would offend or anger anyone. Since then I have used the term selectively.
When around strangers, or in a formal setting, I never refer to myself as “americano.” Instead, I simply say I’m from the U.S. Doing so avoids needlessly offending anyone. I recognize the distinction that Latin Americans make and find it valid in certain settings.
Some people prefer that the word refer strictly to all residents of the Americas, and that’s fine. That’s fair. After all, in Spanish, or at least in formal Spanish, “americano” does technically refer to all residents of the hemisphere. So when speaking in Spanish, it makes sense to speak precisely and refer to U.S. citizens as “estadounidenses.”
Even so, I find little reason to sympathize with anyone who truly does take offense at the generally innocent use – or misuse – of the term by most native English speakers.
In most situations, no harm is intended. At worst, use of the term may divulge a certain degree of ignorance or cultural insensitivity on behalf of the speaker. In these situations, for those sticklers who must insist on the matter, there’s no reason why they can’t kindly offer a diplomatic lesson in proper usage.
But allowing the use or misuse of the word to fuel an angry reaction, as has happened so often here on this blog, seems unnecessary and counterproductive. After all, philosophically speaking, offenses cannot be committed, only perceived. You can’t be offended unless you allow yourself to feel offended.
No real harm is done when someone misuses the term “americano.” Nobody is physically or mentally injured.
As the American (that is, U.S.) philosopher Lou Marinoff put it in his book Plato, Not Prozac: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems, the problem of perceived offenses can be dealt with simply by distinguishing between “harm” and “offense.”
Marinoff describes “offense” as an attitude or behavior toward someone that must first be accepted. It’s akin to an insult. You have to accept it first to feel insulted.
If a stranger insults you – say, calls you an idiot – you get to decide how to feel about the matter. You can decide to feel insulted – to feel like an idiot – or you can decide to ignore the comment, and not feel insulted. If you allow yourself to feel insulted, you’ve unnecessarily given that person control over your own emotional state.
The same is true for offenses. If you allow yourself to feel offended, or even to get angry, at something so generally trivial as the misuse of an adjective, then you’ve relinquished control over your own emotions to others. It’s your choice, not theirs.
This is not true with harm, however, which is actual physical, mental or emotional damage inflicted on you by others. Harm occurs when someone actively causes suffering to another person and that person has no ability to dismiss or reject it. Firing a bullet into your chest causes harm. Misusing the term “americano” doesn’t.
The use or misuse of the term causes no real injury, other than whatever trivial mental anguish someone might allow it to cause.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Argentines or other Latin Americans have no right to advise “Americans” or others about how they want the term to be used. What it does mean is that the only offense that can come from the term’s use is that which people actively allow themselves to feel.
Argentina’s president, a self-proclaimed defender of precision in language, didn’t seem offended by her own comments Monday.