Paul Wolfson, of Washington, D.C., writes, "I have always thought that first-generation American referred to someone who was the first person in a family line to be born in the United States. But a friend insists that first-generation American may refer to someone who immigrates here and becomes a U.S. citizen. Who is right? Have I suddenly changed from a third-generation to a fourth-generation American?"
Dictionaries define, and newspaper and magazine citations use, the term both ways. Strangely enough, first-generation seems never to have had one unmistakable meaning. At least, the earliest dictionary entry I've been able to find, in Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961), reads like this: "1: born in the U.S.—used of an American of immigrant parentage 2: FOREIGN-BORN—used of a naturalized American." So the term is useless, I'm afraid, except where context clarifies which of its meanings is intended. And that's not much of an exception, because if other words make the point, why make it again?
Lee Sechrest, of Tucson, Arizona, writes, "What on earth has befallen the poor word traditional? It is now so widely used to mean 'typical; usual; common' that it appears in danger of losing its, well, traditional meaning. This morning I read in the paper that the use of prescription drugs is growing faster among children than it is among 'senior citizens and baby boomers, the two traditionally high consumer groups.' What is that tradition? Is it like Nativity scenes at Christmas, the Easter bunny, the display of the flag on the Fourth of July? Recently I have encountered the notions that traditionally males outnumber females in certain occupations, that traditionally high school dropout rates are higher among Hispanic students, that traditionally the stock market goes down under certain circumstances, and on and on. Is there nothing that can be done?"