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Mike's Spot

The United States Of What?

Has anybody noticed that America hasn't actually got a name? When I say "America" I am of course referring to the country known as The United States Of America and not the continent (or two continents joined together by an isthmus, if you prefer) of North and South America.

And this is where the problem lies, in the ambiguity over the name "America". Normally, you can figure out which area of land is being referred to by the context, but still it does leave the country of fifty states, forty eight of which lie between Canada and Mexico, without a name of its own.

What nonsense, you may claim, the name of that country that's got the red and white stripy flag with the stars in the top left hand corner is unambiguously "The United States Of America", commonly abbreviated to the USA. But what right has it got to claim to be the only country in the continent (or continents) of America that's comprised of states that are united.

Well, none at all, it would seem. Take its neighbour Mexico. The full name of Mexico is "Los Estados Uni Dos Mexicanos", literally The United States Of Mexico. Mexico has just as much right to call itself The United States Of America as the country where McDonalds and Mickey Mouse come from. But it doesn't. It has a name of its own. So why doesn't its north bordering neighbour do the same?

Vespucci and his voyages to America
In fact, where does the name America come from in the first place? Surely that would shed some light on who was entitled to use it. Well, America was named after the explorer who discovered the continent(s) of America, Amerigo Vespucci. Again I hear exclamations of nonsense, it was discovered by Christopher Columbus. And prior to that, the viking Lief Eriksson sailed to Newfoundland. And if you want to want to get really picky you could say, well, surely the indiginous people who'd been living there for over 14,000 years may have had an inkling of its existence.

Not so. Christopher Columbus did indeed make those voyages to America with which he is credited, and several years before Vespucci. Columbus's aim was find a trade route to Asia by sailing west and avoid the lengthy voyage around Africa. He did not set out discover a new continent, nor did he realise that he had ever done so. Columbus went to his grave convinced that the lands he'd sailed to were a part of Asia, so he actually discovered nothing. Lief Eriksson and the native Americans too would have had no idea that America is a big continent (or two) with huge oceans on either side.

Amerigo Vespucci was the first person to realise what America truly was, and so it is appropriate that his name be applied to it. And since his explorations were mostly in South America, I don't think it unreasonable to demand that the country in the middle bit of North America chooses a name of its own.

But what about my country, I hear you quibble. What sort of a name is the United Kingdom? Surely, we're just as guilty of hi-jacking a generic name as that country that our governments always cow-tow to. Well, no. The full name of my country is "The United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland". A bit of a mouthful, I agree, but that's what it says on my passport and it does describe itself pretty well. It is indeed a kingdom (albeit with a constitutional monarchy), it was united from two previously separate kingdoms of England and Scotland. The name Britain indicates its geographical location, the Great bit may be rather superfluous but it signifies a greater country than the sum of the two independent ones. Northern Ireland is not a part of Britain but it is a part of the sovereign nation so it gets a mention in the full name. (Notice how the country on the other side of the Atlantic does not even bother to include the state of Hawaii in its name.)

For the UK to be as guilty as the country without a proper name it would have to name itself "The United Kingdom Of Europe". The rest of the world would naturally call such a thing the height of arrogance, and yet no one bats an eyelid when the land of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne calls itself "The United States Of America."


Mike's Spot
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