God Bless Henrietta

October 9, 2009

The first part of the joke: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages?” (Help the victim here, if he/she hesitates, say ‘trilingual.’) Next: “ What do you call someone who speaks two languages?” Bilingual is the obvious and easy answer and your respondent is properly primed. Finally: “And someone who speaks one language?” She/he will say, “monolingual,” which you will correct with, “No, American.”

The joke works well in many contexts, but don’t tell it to a Belgian who will immediately huff and inform you that no, it is the French who speak only one language. And don’t try to tell it in broken Spanish to a young beautiful Peruvian woman that you happen to meet in an Internet cafe in Madrid. She will look at you like the blubbering blundering gringo that you are and pronounce in perfect English, “I am an American. I am from Peru. I speak three languages. What do you say to that? My friend here is from Chile. She is an American. She speaks four languages. You US gringos, you forget that America is a continent, not a country.”

I knew this, really I did. Jairo, my friend from Nicaragua, had read me the same riot act a year earlier and told me of his countryman who had been arrested at the US border for checking ‘yes’ in the “Are you an American citizen?” box. He was being truthful, not frivolous or deceptive. “We are all Americans, north, south, central, we all use that word, it is our name too. In Spanish we call you (when we are being polite) ‘estadounidense,’ Unitedstatesian. You are the only nationality I know that claims a continent’s name for itself. You’ve colonized the name itself.”

Speaking of colonies, and names, I have a book of maps of the ‘New World’ titled, The Cartography of North America, 1500-1800. Or mis-titled, since the term ‘North America’ does not appear until the very last map and well over 90% of the reproductions focus on what we now call South America. Amerigo Vespucci was the European (Italian) who realized, and, more importantly, convinced the rulers of Europe that the lands ‘discovered’ by Columbus were not an unknown extension of Asia but in truth a new continent, entire and separate. In honor of his insight and following the principle that new things needs new names (or recycled old ones) the next map drawn featured the fat letters A-M-E-R-I-C-A, the feminized version of Amerigo, across an outline that bore a striking resemblance to what we now call South America. What we call North America was but a poorly formed wisp that hung above, weightless and insular, like an engorged apostrophe, staining the parchment.

And so AMERICA remains, for decades, centuries, even as the details fill in, as the northern half grows, acquiring bulk and definition, and as the native inhabitants are found, defined, redefined and finaled. Mexico, New Spain, New France, Florida, New England — all these names appear and shift around the northern half while AMERICA happily denotes the southern shape. Until the fateful day when against the firm protest of Spain, mapmakers, wanting one generic name for the northern shape, began to scribe AMERICA there, too, with the added qualifier “Septentrional,” meaning ‘north,’ after the Latin name for the Big Dipper, the northern constellation whose Latin name means “Seven Oxen Pulling a Cart.” In a classic example of back-formation the southern shape was now renamed “America Meridional,” literally “the America that goes up and down,” “the longitudinal America.” It seems worth noting that throughout all this mapmaking and naming the land mass itself was always seen as one and even after ‘America’ got pegged to the north, what we now think of as two continents were consistently regarded as one. One America with two regions.

The multilingual Amerigo received his name at baptism, named after Saint Emericus of Hungary who received sainthood as a substitute for the throne of Hungary after he got himself killed by a pig on a hunting trip with his dad the king. The hapless holy Emericus was himself named after his German Uncle Heinreich, which is to say, Henry. Heinriech. Emericus. Americus. Amerigo. America. If it wasn’t for that pig, or Uncle Henry, my joke would need a different punch line. If it wasn’t for the primacy of Latin and Spanish and Italian
we could very easily be calling ourselves Henriettans. North and South Henrietta. The United States of Henrietta. And I still would have made a fool of myself in Madrid.


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