Language systems are fluid. Vocabulary changes, meanings, grammar, syntax, and phonology evolve.
It is rare, however, that one is able pinpoint the exact moment a linguistic transformation occurs – such as when a word or phrase changes meaning. I believe, however, that we witnessed such a rare event -– what is known as a “semantic shift” in the English lexicon — on Thursday evening, July 28, 2016.
This shift involves the oft-repeated expression “USA, USA, USA!” For some time now, cries of “USA” have been heard from Americans at international sports contests, at patriotic rallies, national holidays, and political events. Language historians point to the 1972 Olympics as perhaps the first time this phrase entered our national conversation. But it was during the 1976 Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice” when the undermanned U.S. Hockey team won the Gold Medal at Lake Placid, that the “USA” chant really became solidified in our lexicon. Then, as now, those shouting “USA” were proclaiming to the world: “we’re #1.” It began as a patriotic mantra – one that signifies undying pride in country boasting of our greatness. (It should be noted, however, that while viewed positively by Americans, many outside this country view chants of “USA” as nationalistic bravado, projecting American arrogance, self-importance and haughtiness.)
Most recently, the “USA” refrain was heard repeatedly during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Within the context of this political gathering, ”USA” was uttered as an expression of super patriotism and pride. “We (our party) and our candidate are synonymous with America and we are the greatest!” “We are #1!”
Next came the Democratic National Convention held in Philadelphia — and here is where the meaning of “USA” began to shift.
A major theme of the DNC was diversity: racial, gender, ethnic, sexual orientation, religious…. In an important way, the convention was a celebration of American diversity in all its manifestations. A subtext was that the U.S. is a strong nation because of its diversity, tolerance, and acceptance of differences. This sentiment was expressed through videos, musicians, and a long parade of speakers.
As the convention progressed and the diversity theme was highlighted, occasionally one could hear faint cries of “USA, USA, USA” from the convention goers.
On the evening of July 28th, with his wife beside him, Mr. Khizr Khan, a Pakistan-born immigrant, addressed the convention and told the story of his son, Humayun, an American Army captain who sacrificed his life in Iraq in 2004 to save his fellow soldiers. (Mr. Khan’s speech can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skQOwFyopY0)
The Khans are Muslims. For his ultimate sacrifice, their son was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star posthumously.
In his speech, Mr. Khan criticized the Republican presidential candidate for his stance on immigration — especially Muslim immigration and asked: “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
“We cannot solve our problems by building walls, sowing division. We are stronger together. “
A major point of Mr. Khan’s 6 minute 17 second speech was that the strength of the United States is founded upon its diversity.
And so we have a political convention that highlighted inclusiveness and Mr. Khan’s speech which stressed unity. Now, the semantic shift.
As the Khans took the podium and at least at two points during Mr. Khan’s speech, chants of “USA, USA, USA” could be heard from the audience – not loud, but certainly audible. Interestingly the dynamics of the moment where the convention theme converged with Mr. Khan’s remarks, the shouts of “USA” began to take on a significantly new meaning . Gone was the “we are #1” sentiment and the nationalistic brashness. Before our eyes, the chant was being redefined — where “the united” in “USA” was being stressed – where “USA” was becoming an expression of our diversity – that we are united and one (not #1) as expressed in “E pluribus unum.” At that moment, I believe, a semantic shift began and we saw “USA” being transformed into something very different. Pride in our country, yes. But pride because we are united in our differences and stronger because of our diversity – not because “we’re #1!”
It remains to be seen if this semantic shift takes hold. But, if it does, we can look back on the evening of July 28th 2016 as the time when the old “USA” began to cross a semantic border. As a city that hosted a political convention of a very different kind in 1787, it is certainly fitting that Philadelphia is making history once again.