Turkeys will always be called turkeys, even though we know our English word for them is the result of an error. The bird is native to this...

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Turkeys will always be called turkeys, even though we know our English word for them is the result of an error. The bird is native to this continent and has nothing to do with the country Turkey.

Naming things is an interesting business. Naming people is even more interesting.

Turkeys remind me of a question I was asked recently in an e-mail:

“Yesterday you referred to ‘three African Americans from the Pacific Northwest.’ I thought an African American was an African who had immigrated to the USA. Would you please be kind enough to tell me what the phrase ‘African American’ means to you?”

He was responding to a column about an enterprise that involved people who were born in the United States and one person who emigrated from Somalia.

I’d thought about the phrase as I was writing. I considered saying something like, “three African Americans and one African African American,” just for the fun of it.

There are lots of words and phrases that are an awkward fit, often because they were coined in error, or because something has changed since to disturb their meaning.

“To me, African American means a person whose distant ancestors were brought to the Americas on a slave ship,” I wrote to the reader.

“I doubt anyone gave a thought to immigrants from Africa when the term was born, because immigration from that continent has been such a rare and small thing.”

Now that immigrants from Africa are more plentiful, what to call them may need to be addressed. It’s not much of a problem with the immigrants themselves, who can be identified by their country of origin: Ghanaian American, Somali American and so on.

Ethiopian Americans and Nigerian Americans are culturally different from each other and also from African Americans.

But their children will be different. They might simply be African Americans in the same way that later generations of English or German Americans are usually just called white.

Many white Americans, like black Americans, are so mixed that no other ethnicity stands out.

Of course, we do a lot of lumping for convenience’s sake.

Asian Americans and Latin Americans are not monolithic groups, and neither are Native Americans, but we don’t take the trouble to sort them out.

We aren’t likely to ditch “African American” just because there are more people here fresh from the continent.

Who wants to adapt to yet another term? We started out African but have been Colored, Negro, black, Afro-American and now African American.

Then again, most folks use black, not African American, in ordinary conversation. Maybe we could give African American to recent immigrants.

For the time being, most people understand the term as a substitute for black (which has its own problems). I’m brown, and no one is really white or red or yellow.

If we solved this problem, we’d have to figure out a solution to the Indian dilemma. We have American Indians, East Indians and West Indians, all because some European got confused about where he was.

Of course, if we were going to make more sense, we might have to stop calling U.S. citizens Americans.

Why don’t we call Mexicans Americans? Aren’t Canadians and Brazilians Americans?

We call everyone in Africa Africans and everyone in Europe Europeans and everyone in Asia Asians, but the practice changes in the Americas.

Oh, well. We still call bison buffalo, even though we know better.

And we’ll still call that bird on the Thanksgiving table a turkey, even though we know the folks who labeled it got it confused with a bird they got from Turkey.

The leftovers taste the same, regardless.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.