The Power of Words: A Human Rights Manifesto

JT Su


December 30, 2013

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” — George Orwell, 1984

In Spanish, there’s a word called “estadounidense.” It doesn’t have an English translation–that is, people try to translate it into “American,” but this translation isn’t accurate.

“Estadounidense” is how people here describe someone who hails from the US, derived from “Estados Unidos,” the Spanish words for “The United States.” But in English, we don’t have such words as “United Statians,”–we simply refer to ourselves as “American.”

“This is how we do it in America.”

America is my home country and I love it.”

It has become the norm for citizens of the US to refer to our country as “America” and pride ourselves in being “Americans.” I used to be among those who referred to myself as a “proud American,” but living in South America this year, I realize that the terminology of “America” extends far beyond the borders of the US. “America” defines everything from Cape Wrangell, Alaska, the westernmost point of North America to Ponta do Seixas, Brazil, the easternmost point of South America. It defines everything from Murchison Promontory, Canada, the northernmost point of North America in the frigid Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), Argentina, the southernmost point of the world. Why has our culture shifted to make us oblivious of the fact that “America” was originally dubbed the name for “The New World” as a continent–hundreds of years before the US was even discovered? “America” is properly used describing North America, Central America, and South America, simply referencing the different zones of our entire continent. The truth is, even in Ecuador, I am still living in America. When we refer to ourselves as “American,” we are simply being imperialistic–looking at ourselves as the top-dog of the entire Western Hemisphere.

I recently reflected on my identity as a “chino” in Ecuador, an identity that somewhat irritates me as a Taiwanese American. I go to school everyday, and instead of being known as “Jonathan,” my students refer to me as “chino,” essentially taking away my identity. But I realize that as much as Ecuadorians view my background in the eyes of a “single story,” people living in the US use “single story” terminology to represent ourselves as “American.” Instead of being angry on the inside by being called “chino” everyday, I need to challenge myself to think, “What ‘single story’ words do I use in my everyday life? How can I change myself to banish the ‘single story’ terminology I use everyday?”

I believe there is something everyone can do to change our way with words. So my question is this: can we coin another term for “American” that is more accurate? Can we change the way geography is taught in schools–so that America is seen as a continent and the United States is known as merely a country in America? How can we change our mindset–the power of language we use in our daily lives to ensure that everyone is respected?

JT Su