The new meaning of ‘American’


Amerigo Vespucci probably would be amazed if he knew what “American” means today.

Vespucci was an Italian explorer who made two or maybe four voyages (they didn’t keep very good records back then) to the New World in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He wrote a couple travel booklets for the local chamber of commerce and became famous. For some reason, a cartographer named Martin Waldseemuller made an early map of the new continents and named the new land “America” in honor of Vespucci. The name stuck.

This turned out to be a good thing — the more sensible thing would be to have named the North and South American continents after Christopher Columbus, which means today we would be living in North Columbusland or North Columbia or something like that. We then would be in a big fight over whether we should change the name because old Chris did some not-so-nice things during his voyages and today he gets a lot of criticism. We don’t really know enough about Vespucci to make any terrible claims, so we can stick with the name. We also can be thankful that Waldseemuller didn’t name the continents “Vespucci” or maybe even “Waldseemuller.” America is a lot easier to spell.

But it all isn’t good news for old Amerigo. I guess it’s pretty cool to have a couple continents named after you, but there are some bad things that go with it. He is now the namesake of some unfortunate things, including:

• American Cheese. The world is full of great cheese, so how is it the world’s worst cheese, which isn’t even technically cheese, is named for America? Plus, it comes in little plastic sleeves. Cheese lovers the world over mock America for its cheese. On the other hand, $2.77 billion of American cheese was sold in 2018 — that’s a lot of slices of tasteless cheese! It’s a true tribute to American marketing.

• American Idol. Well, this is embarrassing. If America has idols, they should be teachers or parents who sacrifice for their children or people who volunteer their time and money for others. Instead, it’s a glitzy, highly stage-managed entertainment show. I guess it is kind of symbolic.

• The Big America. This is the name of a McDonald’s hamburger now sold in Israel. It’s a whopping big burger that’s not even kosher, which means they can slap a piece of American cheese on it.

In fact, “big” is an adjective that goes with Americans a lot. It seems like most people overseas think of Americans as being, well, fat. It comes from eating all that American cheese.

• American Woman. This is the title of a song by the Guess Who that I remember well from my teenage years. Here’s the thing: there is some disagreement over whether the song is an anti-American song inspired by the Vietnam War or just a song that warns about the dangers of American women. Either way, it doesn’t turn out so well for our side. The Guess Who, by the way, were a bunch of Canadians.

• The Ugly American. A popular term applied to Americans overseas who can come off as rude and arrogant because … they’re rude and arrogant. It was the title of a famous book (written by Americans!) and it turns up anytime someone from somewhere else gets upset with the U.S. (presumably this often happens after being forced to eat American cheese).

Old Amerigo — probably didn’t even know they named two continents after him because he died in 1512. Had he hung around long enough, he would have found out having vast land masses named after you isn’t always a great thing. One thing he could be thankful for, though — he checked out long before a certain cheese bearing his name was invented.

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