A demonym is any name derived from a place that helps describe people who live there.  Californians are people who live in California; Frenchmen live in France, and so on.  But all demonyms aren’t created equal.

For example, the United States has been accused of appropriating the term American out of abject arrogance and notions of self-importance.  But the issue isn’t that simple because most of countries in North and South America have obvious demonyms—e.g., Canadian, Mexican, Honduran, Brazilian, Chilean, etc.  However, for citizens of the USA the appropriate demonym isn’t obvious at all.  I mean how easily does United Statesian roll off the tongue?  Besides, referring to citizens of the United States as Americans is already well-established and unlikely to change.

OK, but what what about hyphenated demonyms, i.e., terms that use a hyphen between the name of an ethnicity and the word “American,” for example, “Irish-American?”  Interestingly, hyphenated terms were first used as epithets to disparage people living in this country who were either foreign born or who displayed an allegiance to a foreign country.  In fact, during the First World War this term was frequently directed at German-Americans.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the most frequently used hyphenated demonym in the United States today—African-American.   When and why did it gain currency?  Some believe the “ethnonym” African-American originated the 1980s, when Jesse Jackson popularized the term.  Its usage peaked in popularity during the 1990s and 2000s, but today, according to Grammarist.com, it is often perceived as carrying an unnecessary self-conscious political correctness.  Additionally, it can be argued the reason the term came in existence was to highlight the experiences and origins of African-Americans on the African continent and their history on the American continent.

Meanwhile, many feel the term African-American is too restrictive for the current U.S. population because recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean have very different combinations of history and experience; so perhaps the term “black” is more inclusive and therefore a more appropriate demonym to use in the 21st century.

So why not use the demonym black instead of African-American; and are these terms interchangeable, or does political correctness play a role in usage?  Well, that depends.   As a sidebar, again, according to Grammarist.com, black is not an offensive term for Americans of African descent.  In fact, the NY Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe don’t hesitate to use black instead of the more politically correct African-American

~  Upper of lower case? ~

It should also be noted that when speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, many believe the name should be capitalized; i.e., Black with a capital B and White with a capital W.  Linguists, academics and activists have been making this point for years, yet the publishing industry — our major newspapers, magazines and books — resist making this simple yet fundamental change.  In addition, both the Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries state that when referring to African-Americans, Black can be and often is capitalized.  However, the New York Times and Associated Press stylebooks continue to insist on black/white in lowercase.

But regardless of using upper or lower case, according to the American Psychological Association, one thing we should avoid is using ‘unparalleled terms’ in the same sentence, i.e., African-Americans & whites or Asian-Americans & blacks, etc.  The reason is simple; it’s inappropriate to describe one group by cultural heritage and another by color in the same sentence.

Meanwhile, and on a personal basis, I use black in both speech and in writing because I believe the one syllable black is clearer and less pretentious than the seven syllable Af-ri-can Am-er-i-can.

All of which brings me to reason I wrote this commentary in the first place.  I’ve often wondered how to handle the following situation.  When I lived in Denver my internist was white, (Caucasian if you prefer), Jewish and a naturalized American, hailing from South Africa.  Referring to him as African-American, while “technically correct,” didn’t seem right, but would the 9-syllable “White South African-American” be better?    Nah, I didn’t think so either, so my wife Bobbi made a suggestion, she said, “Butch, just refer to him as “my doctor.”

Quote of the day:  “I hate it when people use big words just to make themselves sound perspicacious.”— Unknown