The curious use of the word ‘Un-American’

I have written before about the dangerous consequences of American exceptionalism, the belief that the country and its people are imbued with some special undefined quality that makes them and their cultural and political values better than those of others. This attitude can and does lead the US to think that it can impose its will on other nations and peoples, by force if necessary.

One of the flipsides of the belief in American exceptionalism is the use of the term ‘Un-American’. It is used pejoratively against those who are perceived to have deviated from the ideal and are even possibly traitorous. It is telling that the infamous Congressional committee that was formed in 1938 to investigate private citizens and government employees for disloyalty was called the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The use of the formulation ‘un-X’ where X refers to a nationality is not by itself unusual. In fact it is quite common. But whenever I have seen it applied in various forms to the people of other nations, it is used more humorously or self-deprecatingly to indicate someone who goes against a national stereotype. So someone who wears his emotions on his sleeve might be called ‘un-English’, a reserved and quiet Italian may be called ‘un-Italian’, and so forth.

Sri Lankans used to have the reputation of being lazy and not willing to work hard, content to live off the fat of the land. Partially because of this perceived national characteristic (which is definitely not true now, if it ever was), some in the country even adopted the nickname (derived from Greek mythology) of ‘The Land of the Lotus Eaters’. It was not unusual when I was growing up there to hear people jokingly speak of an extremely hard working and industrious person as ‘not being a true Sri Lankan’ or un-Sri Lankan.

But un-American, or its equivalents, is rarely used in this facetious, jesting, or even backhanded complimentary way. It is used to disparage the other person or an action. To call an action or person un-American is to label the action as a character flaw and such a person as a blemish on the American body politic, to be despised and rejected by right-thinking people. To be called un-American is fighting words.

I know that readers of this blog are from all over the world. I am curious if there are some of from another country X that uses the term un-X in the same seriously pejorative way that it is used here.


  1. The Beautiful Void says

    In Britain where I live, you’re expected to maintain an air of polite hypocrisy regarding social ills. Actually pointing out that a terrible thing is terrible is regarded as being “Un-British”.

    This alone is poisonous enough, but gets a whole lot worse when you notice that it’s basically only ever used by the privileged classes as a means of stifling discussion of their privileged position. To be “British” involves not only swallowing a deeply inequal system but actively fighting to maintain one’s ignorance of the unfairness within it. Therefore, any progressive argument becomes “Not British” and can instantly be written off without actually considering it.

    If you’re into meme theory (which I’m not) then you could probably draw some fascinating parallels between that and an immune system learning to reject the signature of foreign proteins (in this case, progressive politics.)

  2. voidhawk says

    In Britain, it’s usually meant in the light-hearted or slightly disapointed way. For instance, we might say that someone who cuts a queue isn’t being very British, or people who wave the British flag from their windows on an ocassion other than a sporting or national event. (unless they turn it up to eleven and also wear a Union Flag John Bull outfit with an inflatable bulldog and home liberally festooned in bunting – over-the-top silliness is about as british as it’s possible to be.)

  3. Dean says

    Yep. In Canada calling someone un-Canadian is just as derogatory as in the US, largely because of the exposure we get here to the US political system, news and culture.

    That said, it’s usually in the opposite way…people on the left describing those on the right.

  4. doublereed says

    I know that in the pre-Nazi era of Germany, this was the main slander against Jews. Richard Wagner (and similar voices of the time), were saying that the major problem of Jews was that they were not German. The calls were to “assimilate” the Jews, not kill them.

    I remember when Sarah Palin talked about “Real America.” A lot of people laughed at her for it, like the Daily Show, but I actually found the rhetoric quite disturbing and serious.

  5. Anthony K says

    I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone describe anyone as un-Canadian. (It seems a very un-Canadian thing to say.)

    Then again, I also can’t see it being much of an insult here in Alberta, where we’re all entrepreneurial Mitt Romneys who’d love a chance to apply our bootstrapping brilliance* in the land of freedom and low taxes to the south. In fact, I suspect very much it would be something of a compliment. “Hell yeah, I’m un-Canadian. Taxes are for losers! Oil revenues never dry up! No, of course I don’t remember the 1980s.”

    Wait, I think I just did the thing you’re referring to, Dean.

  6. David Marjanović says

    in the pre-Nazi era of Germany, this was the main slander against Jews

    …while in the Nazi era, this was the main slur against everyone!

    “Un-American” always immediately gives me a Godwin reaction.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Compare the uses of the term “un-American” to those of “ungodlly.”

    The parallels are exact and inescapable.

    Checkmate, atheists!

  8. smrnda says

    To me, “un-American” is using a label to say ‘bad’ without giving a reason why something is ‘bad,’ and also without explaining why “American” is good. It’s a rhetorical trick to hold up the norms and cultural myths of a particular place as being above criticism.

    In a similar way, opponents of progressive policies will rant on that they are ‘un-American, anti-freedom, anti-individual and anti-reason.’ (I heard that string applies to the ACA.) Yet again, no real criticisms of substance, just argument by assertion.

    When I encounter people who use the term ‘un-American’ I ask them how the issue would be discussed in another country, which isn’t America, where ‘un-American’ is meaningless. I get lots of blank stares, or else the person basically says that we’re just *supposed* to accept certain things as “American” and not question them.

  9. Robert B. says

    I’ve heard “un-Canadian” used in the way Mano describes “un-English” or “un-Italian”, as a joke about stereotypes – “un-Canadian” when I encountered it referred to rude or disorderly behavior, as opposed to the apparent stereotype that Canadians are pleasant and polite. But I haven’t heard it very often.

  10. colnago80 says

    I can testify that HUAC was no joke. I went to junior high school with a boy whose father was a Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 1950s. Sadly, the father was given an award by the Screenwriter’s Guild in 1997 at a black tie affair and he was killed in a one car accident on Mulholland Drive on his way home. Mulholland Drive is no place to drive at night after quaffing a few.

  11. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    The captain is in his bunk, drinking bottled ditch-water; and the crew is gambling in the forecastle. She will strike and split and sink. Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favour of England because you were born in it?

    Change the country and Captain Shotover’s criticism of exceptionalism still applies

  12. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Kinglake’s account of two British explorers crossing the Arabian desert is an ideal version of Britishness. The two caravans slowly got closer and closer and passed and as they passed each other the two men took off their topis and bowed their heads in acknowledgment and continued their journeys.

  13. arno says

    I grew up in Germany and now live in England. Combining un- with some nationality is something I’ve only really encountered with “American” following (and grammatically, the prefix un- works the same in English and German, so language is not the reason).

    While “That’s not very British/English” may be a related concept (which certainly have heard a few times), I don’t think its the direct equivalent. In Germany a corresponding utterance would be seen as out of line, and as an indication of extreme right-wing views.

  14. says

    Well, that’s the thing, see. Calling someone un-Canadian would be kinda…un-Canadian. We’d be more likely to say something like “Well, that’s not very Canadian of you!”

    It’d just be more Canadian.

  15. Stephanie says

    The more conservative party in Australia loves to call anything they don’t like “un-Australian”. It’s become quite the racist/anti-immigrant dog-whistle, because the way it’s used implies there’s only one way to be Australian.

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