I have the good fortune to live within a thirty-minute drive of Crystal Bridges, one of the world’s few major art museums to specialize in American art.
Or should I say, “Usonian art”?
Usonian is a new word to me. It does not appear in either the OED or M-W. I read it for the first time in a news story announcing the acquisition of a Usonian house that is being dismantled in New Jersey to be transported and reassembled on the 120-acre grounds of Crystal Bridges.
American/Usonian architect Frank Lloyd Wright used the word to refer to his vision for New World architecture that would be free of previous architectural conventions.
Wright’s first use of the word was in 1927:
But why this term “America” has become representative as the name of these United States at home and abroad is past recall. Samuel Butler fitted us with a good name. He called us Usonians, and our Nation of combined States, Usonia.
Wright misattributed the term Usonian to Samuel Butler. In fact, the word’s first appearance was in 1903, in the writings of James Duff Law. He proposed the term as an adjective to describe the residents of the United States:
”We of the United States, in justice to Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title ‘Americans’ when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves.”
L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, had similar ideas. The Esperanto word for the United States–first used in a speech at the 1910 World Congress of Esperanto in Washington, D.C., is Usono; the Esperanto word for an inhabitant of the U.S. is Usonano, and the adjective is usona.
Wright’s “Usonian homes” were designed to be affordable to middle-income families; they were small, single-story dwellings without a garage or much storage. Wright coined the word carport to describe the covered unenclosed space in which to park the family car.
Jacobs House, thought to have been the first of about sixty Usonian homes designed by Wright, was built in Madison, Wisconsin in 1937. The buyer, Herbert Jacobs, challenged Wright to design and build a home for $5,000. Using recycled bricks, Wright kept construction costs to $5,500.
Note: In 1937, the average annual wage in the U.S. was $1,788; the average cost of a new house, $4,100; the average price of a new car, $760, and annual tuition at Harvard University, $420.
Perhaps speakers in the United States who wish to avoid offending the other inhabitants of North and South America by using the word American to refer to themselves alone could soothe their consciences by adopting the word Usonian.
To try it out, I played around with some movie titles:
A Usonian Werewolf in London
The change would take some getting used to. But then, since so many people are complaining nowadays that the country is not what it once was, maybe it’s time to adopt a new demonym.
Note: Demonym is another word that hasn’t made it into the OED or M-W yet. From the Greek word for “populace,” a demonym is the name applied to a person according to country of origin. For example, French, Latvian, Canadian.