Goodbye, Columbus

An annual holiday gives a Table Talker pause for reflection.

Published October 13, 2006 10:05AM (EDT)


The Further Adventures of Mangled Language.

popinque - 08:13 am Pacific Time - Oct 12, 2006 - #6531 of 6535

'Tis the annual season of fussing about the word "discover." As an American historian I have had more than enough exposure to indignation about phrases like "discovered America" or "discovered Africa." The objection to them is that they suggest that those continents did not exist before they were "discovered," as though saying that I discovered my lost shoe under the bed implied that it had not previously existed.

What we have here is the attribution, to a phrase used by certain people, of an attitude held by some (or even many) people who use that phrase.

Certainly many European people (by which I mean to include white Americans) have treated these two continents as places unworthy of notice until Europeans invaded and conquered them or places important in history only because Europeans invaded and conquered them.

And it is certainly true that European and American history has been written and taught from a very ethno-centric perspective. This is common enough as histories go, but in this case, the ethno-centrism ignored and excluded native Americans and persons of African descent in Europe and post-Columbian America.

Nevertheless, little is done to correct that racist bias in our history by objecting to the verb "discover." That word in Columbus' day meant to uncover that which had been hidden. By 1555 it was being used to mean "to find that which was previously unknown." As applied to what Columbus did, neither meaning denigrates the Western Hemisphere or its pre-Columbian inhabitants. Each refers to the geographical ignorance of Europeans of Columbus' day.

I do not know exactly how much geographical knowledge of the entire hemisphere its pre-Columbian inhabitants had. I am certain they had no common name for it if they did have the concept of it, which I doubt. "America," "North America," "South America," "the New World," etc., as concepts were, in fact, all invented by Europeans.

It would behoove white Americans to refer at least occasionally to Columbus' invasion of America, but to get all exercised about any use of the word "discover," I think, confuses more than clarifies.

Language is mangled not just through misuse by speakers and writers, but through misinterpretation by hearers and readers.

Now fire away at me if you wish, but please don't misinterpret my words.

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