Ask An Editor: Does “Americana” have a negative connotation?
In which an editor explains to English as a Second Language students the loaded history of this nostalgic term
I was blessed to receive my COVID vaccination earlier in 2021 than many others, thanks to a selfless act by a friend; so to pay them back karmically, I'm doing volunteer work in English editing in various places all over the internet this year. One place is the subreddit English Learning, in which befuddled ESL students around the world post questions that no one else can seem to answer for them, many involving odd phrases, idioms, and other bizarre corners of English grammar and usage. I find many of them so interesting, I decided to start reposting them here to my blog. Note, however, that many other people usually reply to these questions as well, and that I'm only sharing my own answer since I have no one else's permission to do so. See my main index page for the full list.
On June 18th, 2021, Reddit user carltonsoohoo asked:
Can the word Americana be used in any negative way in any connotation, nuance, or sarcasm? I try to be politically correct.
“Americana” itself is a neutral term. It refers to any general, widely accepted stereotype about what “defines” America in a positive way. The most famous idiom about Americana, for example, is “mom, baseball and apple pie.” Other people might include bluegrass and jazz music as part of Americana, hamburgers and hot dogs, freedom and personal liberty, hosting a picnic on the Fourth of July, and many others.
The tricky part is not the definition itself, but how various Americans react to the definition. As you can see, the concept of “Americana” is closely tied to pleasant nostalgia and old-fashioned touchstones. Therefore, some people (usually political conservatives) use the idea of “Americana” to invoke an ideal “good old days” that no longer exist, and complain about the modern liberals who have destroyed these “good old days.” Other people (usually political liberals) criticize the very idea of “Americana,” and claim that these conservatives' old-fashioned beliefs are the direct cause of so many of our country's problems.
Whatever the person's opinion, though, “Americana” is almost always used to describe old things, not new things, even if the new things are very popular and well-known in America. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are part of Americana; Barack Obama and Donald Trump are not. Baseball is Americana; basketball is not. Also, I saw someone in the comments mention several negative things they believe are associated with Americana, but I would argue that the term encompasses only positive traits, since the whole point of Americana is to fondly think back on pleasantly nostalgic memories. “Americana” is not what America has actually ever been; it's a hazy, nice memory of what we want America to be.
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