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My dictionary, Webster's Ninth New Collegiate, does not list the word. However, the Webster's definition of the word American is "of or relating to America" -- hmm! Is it correct to use the word by itself? Is there really such a place?
Some dictionaries, including both Webster's Ninth and the current, tenth edition, isolate most proper names in appendixes, listing only words derived from them in the main body of the text. You'll note that the main body of Webster's under United States doesn't say anything about a specific country but gives only a generic meaning ("a federation of states ... ").
People on the American continents outside the United States can definitely be touchy about it when we say that we're Americans. But what else are we supposed to call ourselves? U.S. citizens? Call yourself that if you like -- it sounds too bureaucratic for my taste. Besides, there are those songs you mention, such as "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." And our country came into being with the American Revolution, and many organizations bear names like American Airlines, and the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ASPCA, and on and on.
Help Barbara Wallraff track down America's Ten Most Wanted Words. An interactive column. Also browse the Court Record of retirees from the 10 Most Wanted list.
The etiquette involved may be questionable when U.S. residents refer to
themselves as Americans in front of Canadians, Mexicans, or South or Central
Americans -- a bit as it would be if Protestants tried to distinguish themselves from Catholics by asserting that they were Christians. Nonetheless, both American and America are well established internationally as pertaining to the United States, and there's no reason we should deny ourselves the use of these words when talking either with our fellow Americans or with people who live on other continents.
Why do I always see in the print media "obviates the need to ... " instead of simply "obviates"? I am astonished at the frequency of this. For example, from an article in my local paper about a trial: "Reynolds' appearance on his own behalf -- and denial that he had sex with Heard -- obviated the need to call his wife, who could have made a strong impression on jurors.... " The irony, of course, is that the word obviate obviates the need to.
There are two points of view on obviate. According to the one you subscribe to, which most recent dictionaries support, the word means "make unnecessary" -- and who would ever say made unnecessary the need to ... ? According to the other, more traditional point of view, which older dictionaries and the Oxford English Dictionary support, the word has to do with clearing away potential obstacles -- meaning something more like "do away with." In your example the obstacle would be the need, not the calling, and did away with the need to call his wife would be more nearly what was meant than did away with calling his wife, so in this view obviated the need to is what's needed after all.
These possibilities have little common ground. Anyone who tries to fulfill both at once will end up with the idea of making obstacles unnecessary -- not an idea that arises often. Come to think of it, there's a third possible point of view on obviate: that it has two meanings.
Describing my attributes to a prospective client in Princeton, New Jersey (I am a freelance writer), I stated that writing long pieces -- brochures and such -- is my forte, pronouncing it fort. During the ensuing discussion, the man interviewing me referred to my forte, pronouncing it for-tay -- not so subtly letting me know that he felt I had used the incorrect pronunciation. I couldn't help hearing a hint of condescension in his tone. However, I do believe my pronunciation was correct: forte pronounced fort is a thing a person does particularly well, as opposed to forte pronounced for-tay, a musical term meaning "loud." I believe this man's mistake is a very common one. Then again, do the wordsmiths in Princeton know something that those in less academic communities do not?
Cherry Hill, N.J.
Your interviewer does seem to have had exceptional knowledge of how to sow self-doubt in others. You're quite right about the preferred pronunciations for forte in its different meanings -- and right, too, not to have tried to correct a sales prospect's pronunciation.
Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@TheAtlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.
Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthlymagazine.
Illustrations by Ross MacDonald
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; Word Court; Volume 283, No. 3; page 120.