Label Babel | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Label Babel

Label Babel

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Ever since George W. Bush set eyebrows rising when he mistakenly called the East Timorese by the name East Timorians, I’ve been lying awake nights trying to figure out the rules for the way we label people from various places.

Let’s start with something ese-y, like the Chinese, the Japanese and those beleaguered East Timorese. At first blush it seems there’s a simple rule in operation here: people from countries in Asia take the suffix "ese." Hence, in addition to the aforementioned, we have the Taiwanese, the Vietnamese and, naturally, the West Timorese. It all looks perfectly neat. Yet if the Asia rule held, wouldn’t we also have the Cambodese, the Tibetese and the Indonesiaese? Conversely, how can we account for the non-Asian Congolese, Senegalese and Lebanese? And if you believe the answer lies in Eurocentrism, how do you explain the Portuguese?

Perhaps these designations derive not so much from geography as from spelling. Maybe the "or" at the end of Timor should have tipped Mr. Bush off to the appropriate "ese" suffix. Sounds plausible, but then why aren’t people from Ecuador called Ecuadorese or those hardy souls up in Maine known as the Bangorese? (Speaking of Maine, if people from Spain are Spaniards, shouldn’t Down Easters be Maniards?)

Once you start obsessing along these lines, you quickly realize there’s precious little rhyme and not much reason to these quirky designations. Consider, for example, the ticklish "ish" situation: countries whose names end in "land" tend to produce "ish" people. England and Ireland are nicely behaved examples. But it turns out that a "land" country by no means guarantees an "ish" people. Iceland is home to the Icelanders, not the Icish. Likewise, the upstanding citizens of Newfoundland are not Newfoundish, but Newfoundland-ers. And to totally muddy the linguistic waters, while the people of England are indeed English, New England is the land of New Englanders, not of the New English. Worse, if Thais come from Thailand and Finns come from Finland, why aren’t people from Holland called Holls? (They’re Dutch, of course. Go figure.)

Deeper mysteries abound: people from Canada and Florida somehow pick up an internal "i," becoming Canadians and Floridians, yet those from other "a" places do not, or else we would have Americians, Alaskians and Arubians. So, you say, an "a" ending is not sufficient. After all, both Canada and Florida end in "da." Well, tell that to the Ugandans.

And how did people from Peru come to be called Peruvians? Who slipped in that silly "v"? It certainly wasn’t dictated by the "u," or we would also have Honoluluvians and Timbuctuvians. Likewise, if the "o" at the end of Kosovo makes for Kosovars, where are the Congovars, the Ohiovars, the Pago Pagovars and the Tierra del Fuegovars? Come to think of it, are those folks more properly the Tierra del Fuegans or the Tierrans del Fuego?

If the denizens of Rome, Italy, are Romans, what are people from Nome, Alaska? Nomans? And if residents of Los Angeles are known as Angelenos, why aren’t those who live in Las Vegas called Veganos? Norway gives us Norwegians and Galway supplies Galwegians; but are those suburbanites out on Long Island Far Rockawegians? Is Hunan Province in China populated by Hunaners, Hunanese or Hunanians? Or Hunan beings?

No doubt you now understand why these linguistic mysteries have disturbed my sleep for the past couple of years. Just last night, as I was about to drift off to the Land of Nod, I began to wonder: Who lives there? The Nodians? The Noddish? The Nodlanders? The Nodese? The Nodovars? The Noss?

As I’m sure George W. would agree, this is not an endeavor for the timorous. Not to mention the timorish.

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