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Of vocabulary and the Fourth

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Ed Quillen | Jul 05, 2008 12:35 PM

Many small towns promote an "Old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration," and mine is no exception, starting with an afternoon parade and concluding with fireworks after dusk. Judging by old newspapers and the memories of old-timers, we miss several "old-fashioned" aspects of the celebration: modern kids don't enjoy much access to potent fireworks like silver salutes and cannon-crackers, and there is no public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

To remedy the latter shortcoming, my wife and I often visit the community radio station on the Fourth, and read the Declaration along with some exposition and commentary. I don't know if anyone listens, but it makes me feel more patriotic; the Declaration, along with the Bill of Rights and public lands, are what I love most about this country. Or, as the bumper sticker puts it, "I love my country but fear its government."

But sometimes I wonder if we need a better word than patriot and its derivatives. It is rather sexist, since it is related to words like patriarchy, and it ultimately derives from the Greek words pater (father) and patris (fatherland).

Fatherland can have a rather ominous sound, since that's one term that Germans of the Nazi era used for their country, but the dictionary at hand (American Heritage Second College Edition) avoids that connotation, with two definitions: "a person's native land," and "the native land of one's ancestors."

Motherland -- what many Russians call their country -- has a similar definition: "the land or country of one's birth," and an identical one, "the native land of one's ancestors," as well as a third: "A country considered to be the place of origin, as of a movement."

Thus it seems odd that we often read of patriots and patriotism, but seldom see matriots and matriotism -- they ought to be pretty much the same thing. On the other hand, if we're trying to avoid sexism, matriot is no improvement on patriot.

Perhaps that's why the current administration, in the process of fabricating a new bureaucracy, called it "Homeland Security." Homeland, as opposed to motherland or fatherland, does avoid sexism, but if we go by the dictionary ("one's native land"), it applies only to those born in the U.S.A. No matter how one feels about immigration of any variety, it is a fact that millions of immigrants have become citizens and have made this country their home. One's place of birth, after all, is something one has no control over.

Further, it's pretty difficult to construct an analogue to patriot or matriot from homeland. Latin gives us something like domiot.

The Greek word for home is oikos, and it's already the root for works like ecology (home logic) and eoonomy (home management). But oikiot and ecoiot are awkward-sounding terms that would lend themselves to ridicule.

Somewhere there must be an inclusive word for one who cherishes the country without turning it into a fatherland, motherland or homeland. But so far, I haven't been able to find it. Perhaps there's a useful term in Spanish or Ute or Navajo. In the meantime, though, there's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

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