Stanford is right, you're using the term "American" wrong
Shouldn’t we want to communicate more effectively with more people?
If you’ve been one of my students or worked closely with me for any long period of time, you may be familiar with my focus on language precision, my emphasis on being precise with language, and my personal annoyance with the widespread use of lazy, imprecise use of words in all sort of contexts.
I recently wrote that many of you are using the word “diverse” incorrectly:
PSA: No single thing can be diverse. Diversity only applies to groups.
❌ There is no such thing as a “diverse” candidate.
❌ There is no such thing as a “diverse” founder.
❌ There is no such thing as a “diverse” executive.
✅ Only groups of candidates can be diverse.
✅ Only groups of founders can be diverse.
✅ Only groups of executives can be diverse.
Many people say “diverse” when they mean something like “underrepresented” or “person of color.”
That is lazy and imprecise.
It’s not just a pet peeve of mine.
Misusing the word “diverse” does two things:
1️⃣ Makes our statements less clear.
👉🏿 “50% of the capital came from black or female investors” (more clear, more precise, more understandable to the audience) > “50% of the capital came from diverse investors.” (imprecise and vague)
2️⃣ Undermines the meaning of “diverse” in other contexts.
🗣️ “Their model trained on a more diverse set of inputs”
🗣️ “I’d like to have a diverse group of perspectives around the table.”
🗣️ “She speaks a diverse set of languages”
What do these statements mean when “diverse” is too often a bad euphemism for non-white?
Words matter. Language matters. Let’s be better.
I’ve previously expressed my distaste for the purely domestic use of the term “minority”:
I’ve criticized descriptions of women as “females”:
It's also why some of my favorite data visualizations are those that attempt to make inherently vague language more precise:
So you can imagine my delight with the “Imprecise Language” section of Stanford’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI). The initiative and its list of suggested language, was released in May but only erupted in controversy in recent weeks:
The language policing is part of the university’s sweeping “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative,” which it says is a “multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT at Stanford.” The initiative’s handy website , launched in May, is “geared toward helping individuals recognize and address potentially harmful language they may be using.”
For instance, yes, “American,” from the “imprecise language” section is now problematic. People are instead asked to use “U.S. Citizen” because “American” is commonly used to refer to “people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the U.S. is the most important country in the Americas.” The Americas, the guide points out, is made up of 42 countries.
Stanford says its goal is to eradicate “many forms of harmful language” and is divided into ten areas: ageism, ableist, colonialism, culturally appropriative, gender-based, imprecise language, institutionalized racism, person-first, violent, and additional considerations, Fox News reports.
Larry Elder, the conservative commentator, radio host, and former California gubernatorial candidate had a stronger take:
Under a section called “Imprecise Language,” the guide suggests replacing the term “American” with “U.S. citizen.” It explains: “(‘American’) often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas.” After all, North and South America contain 35 countries. And they have feelings, too.
Goodness, one of my favorite groups growing up was “Jay and the Americans.” One can never listen to “Cara Mia” the same way again. What about calling someone “un-American”? Is that elitist, too? Can we still refer to a style as “Americana”?
Do we have to dump the term “the United States of America” in favor of “the United States of One of the 35 Countries in the Americas”? In baseball, we have the National League and, goodness, the American League. Bye-bye, “American Dream,” “All American,” “All-American Girl,” “American Idol,” “American exceptionalism,” “American Express,” “AmWay” and certainly the expression “the American way.” Sorry, Superman, and the “never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.”
I am not a linguist, I haven’t investigated the list in detail, and I’m not endorsing it in its entirety.
But ‘American,’ the term that seemed to invoke the ire of so many people, is such a good example of language that can, and should, be more precise.
As the EHLI says, “Instead of ‘American,’ consider using ‘U.S. Citizen.’ [American] often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).”
(I might actually take issue with U.S. Citizen as the best replacement term. I can think of plenty of people who might typically be referred to as ‘American’ who aren’t citizens, per se.)
The initiative’s point, one with which I staunchly agree, is that ‘American’ in many contexts just doesn’t provide enough information.
As journalist Karina Martinez-Carter wrote for The Atlantic in 2013:
I was sitting with an Argentine friend, well educated and well traveled, who was reading The Atlantic online. A headline used the term "America" as a synonym for the United States of America. "That's incorrect," he said, sounding shocked that an esteemed publication would make such a junior mistake. "America is a region, not a country."
Though I didn't share his reaction, as a U.S. citizen living in Argentina I had quickly learned that it was in best taste to avoid referring to myself as an "American" or the U.S. as "America." Such terminology almost always provoked my Argentinian acquaintances. "We're all Americans," some would say gently, with a smile. In extreme cases I would receive a tirade denouncing U.S. arrogance. Largely, in Latin America and for Latin Americans, the term "America" means Latin America, and "American," Latin American.
I was unaware of how nuanced "America" and "American" were before moving to Argentina in September 2010. I did have a moment of realization in college, though, that people outside the 50 United States also laid claim to the terms. It came when reading Cuban politician José Martí's seminal 1891 essay "Nuestra América" in a Spanish literature class. Martí urges the people of "América" to join together, strengthen the region and be proud of who they are and what is theirs--an echo of Simón Bolívar's tenets when crusading to unite the entire region in the early 1800s. Martí is undoubtedly speaking to and about Latin America and its people, and I had launched into the text assuming he was about to expound on his perception of the United States of America.
In fact, much of the world, outside of the United States considers “America” to include all of North and South America combined:
The red ring in the logo of the Olympic Games? It represents “America” as in ALL of the Americas:
Using ‘American’ to refer to someone from the U.S. is far too vague. Using ‘American’ in that context appears to be largely done by people in the U.S.
Yet, Institutions like Stanford function on a global scale. More than 25% of Stanford students are from outside of the U.S. For those who think globally, have global audiences, or aspire to, it’s important to think probabilistically about whom you’re communicating with. Ninety-six percent of people on the planet live outside of the U.S.
Thinking globally is the future. I’d argue that the most important organizations, and people, have global audiences. The internet has given any person or institution the ability to have a global audience.
Shouldn’t we want to communicate more effectively with more people? Language is designed to communicate information, and precision makes communicating that information more effective.
The best part is that being more precise costs nothing.
Happy New Year! Let’s speak and write more precisely and more effectively in 2023.