Overseas Dilemma: How to Say Where I Come From

2 Dec

When traveling abroad, the first question you’re asked after you introduce yourself is almost always, “Where are you from?”

As an American, this question poses an interesting linguistic dilemma. Our country is blessed (or cursed?) with an exceptional number of different names, abbreviations, and nicknames. When you’re in your home country, you don’t think too much about this, because it’s not often that you actually have to specify the name of the nation that you’re in.

When a foreign acquaintance poses the aforementioned question at, say, a youth hostel, my brain usually experiences a delay of a few hundred milliseconds as I mentally scroll through the Rolodex of names for the United States of America, attempting to weigh the pros and cons of each one:

1. The United States. Given that “the United States of America” is definitely too wordy and would probably earn you some strange looks (although not as many as “the Republic of the United States of America”), “the United States” seems like a reasonable alternative. Except that like most Americans, I’m a fan of convenience and efficiency. “The United States” is still too clunky to fit in the drive-thru of my mouth, so sometimes it sounds awkward and unnecessarily verbose, as if my interlocutor had never even heard of this country before and needed a detailed explanation of how federalism works.

2. The US. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the liberally truncated form of “the United States.” It’s easier to say, but it risks not being understood, especially when your newly-met acquaintance is not a native English speaker. Acronyms are not universal (for example, NATO in France is OTAN and the UN is the ONU).  It could theoretically be misinterpreted as “University of Saskatchewan,” “unconditioned stimulus,” or “Ugandan Shilling,” all of which would make you sound crazy.

3. America. It has a dignified air to it, and it’s fairly current among Brits. However, it doesn’t translate so well with speakers of other languages. For the French, “Amérique” typically evokes not only the United States but also Canada, if not the entire North and South American continents (the French seem to be a few hundred years late on the memo that we’ve actually divided “the New World” into two parts). Even for Americans, the word has a bit of a bombastic quality, usually reserved for 19th century patriotic hymns or impassioned political rants about how Mexicans are ruining everything.

4. The States. Ooh, would you like a chai tea latte with that plate of pretentiousness? Even though “the States” is a convenient and common moniker in the rest of the English-speaking world, requiring the smallest number of syllables, no true red-blooded American can say it without feeling slightly treasonous. Dropping off the rest of the name around “States” almost feels sacrilegious, like the habits of a disillusioned ex-pat who’s trying to “act European.”

5. The USA. This one has certain advantages, namely that it seems to be recognized by speakers of many languages (unlike the “US” acronym). Probably because they’ve seen news clips of people chanting “USA! USA! USA!” Which is precisely why you’d rather not use it.

6. Say your state, not your country. If I want to avoid the name dilemma altogether, I can opt to tell people that I’m from New Hampshire instead. There’s one minor problem with this method: nobody knows where the hell New Hampshire is. It doesn’t fit into the average foreigner’s perception of the continguous United States:

A foreigner's view of America

Since “New Hampshire” is usually met with a blank stare or a face contorted in confusion, I have to qualify: “It’s near Boston.” If that fails, “near New York” will usually do the trick. Then they ask me if I’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty.

In practice, I most often use “the United States” with non-English speakers, despite its wordiness. With Brits, Aussies, etc., I usually assume they can already tell that I’m American because of my accent, so I typically say “New Hampshire,” followed by the clarifier “in the US,” “in the States,” or “in America,” depending on my mood.

It’s near Boston.

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3 Responses to “Overseas Dilemma: How to Say Where I Come From”

  1. forum 21 March 2013 at 23:34 #

    Hey are using WordPress for your site platform?
    I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and set up my own.

    Do you need any coding expertise to make your own blog?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated! forum

  2. Elena 30 September 2013 at 14:09 #

    If everyone thought as a linguist..!

    I am actually doing a project on New Hampshire dialect. Would you be interested in consulting me over a few things?

    Thanks in advance,

  3. google 25 August 2014 at 12:26 #

    I relish, cause I found just what I was having a look for.
    You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day.
    Bye

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