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Why doesn’t the U.S. have a name?

January 9, 2011


This is a serious question.

It was hibernating like a winter bear until it finally confronted me—twice—in Brazil. The first time was a little jarring: as a naturalized, formerly alien United States of American, I’m acutely sensitive to political nomenclature. My ear has been trained, voluntarily or involuntarily, to the intentions behind naming things and people. When a Brazilian looked exasperated when I called a United States-ian an ‘American,’ the fumble became a lasting didactic moment. ‘We are Americans too: there is an entire continent called South America.’ Indeed.

The second moment of disambiguation happened when reading Caetano Veloso’s Verdade Tropical. I’ll quote the English version, titled Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil:

The United States is a country without a name: America is the name of the continent where, among others, the states that were once English colonies united. Brazil is a name without a country. The English seem to have stolen the name of the continent and given it to the country they founded. The Portuguese seem not to have really founded a country, but managed to suggest that they landed in a part of America that was absolutely Other, and they called it Brazil. [3-4]

Veloso’s antipodal comparison to Brazil along a colonial history makes sense. And he would know. As one of Brazil’s most celebrated singer-songwriters, and the one you’ll most often hear being referred to as a ‘musical genius’ (not a title he disputes, I think), he was exiled to the United Kingdom in 1969 by the third military government, led by Emilio Garrastazu Médici. While his active and visible work as a musician and activist was likely the real menace to the regime, his arrest (along with Gilberto Gil) was based on devalorizing a national symbol:

[O]n December 27, 1968 Veloso and Gil were arrested for supposedly disrespecting the national anthem and Brazilian flag. Having their heads shaven at Army Headquarters in Marechal Dedoro, they were temporarily imprisoned and banned from making public appearances.

(If one were to get awesomely and legalistically technical about it, the U.S. has a Flag Code established for the care and treatment of the flag, but they are advisory rules.) Veloso also writes a fascinating critique of Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, noting the invalidity of Huntington’s classificatory criterion for civilization:

What I find most unconvincing is his portrayal of the United States as the guardian of European civilization. I see America as a radically new stage in Western culture. Traumatically ‘bathed in black blood, in Indian blood,’ it is the aggressive antithesis of Europe. In some respects, this applies to the United States more than to the entirety of Latin countries in the New World. The violence of the U.S. mass culture and its vigorous export, since the twenties, of a ‘mongrel’ form (to use Ann Douglas’s term) defines a reality that represents not so much the crystallization of the European phase of history as its overthrow. [322]

The English colonies were overthrown. The states were united (finally) under one sacrosanct flag. But there is still the unsolved problem of being a country without a name.

(Art: Metaesquema (Meta-Scheme, 1958) by Hélio Oiticica.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 21:11

    Well, actually the original name for the USA was supposed to be Columbia (Not to be confused with Colombia), after Chritoforo Columbo, or “Christopher Columbus”. The capital of the USA, Washington D.C., the D.C. Standing for “District of Columbia”. I’m not sure why this never went through – technically, the USA doesnt have a name.

  2. Emilia permalink
    July 7, 2012 00:48

    I agree that the meaning of the word “American” can be confusing, but it’s a stretch to say the USA doesn’t have a name. You called it the “United States of America” … which is its name. A name is a term used to identify something, isn’t it? It would be very difficult for a country like the US to get as far as its gotten without any way of referring to it.

    If you want to be technically correct, I suppose you could always use your state demonym (I found a really handy list of them on Wikipedia, google “demonyms for US states”). Then, when the Brazilians you’re speaking with don’t know what an “Oregonian” is, you can be the one to get exasperated.

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