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June 27th, 2007

American / no rest for the weary or the wicked?

by Barbara Wallraff

Beatrice Kabler, of Madison, Wis., writes: “I am distressed with the egocentrism of people who refer to themselves as ‘Americans’ when they mean they are from the US of A. It is presumptuous to think we are ‘America’ when there is South America and when Central America and Canada are on the North American continent. Canadians are most specific and never refer to themselves as ‘Americans.’ We should do the same.”

Dear Beatrice: I agree with you that if the citizens of the United States were coining a name for themselves today, they might reject “American” as grandiose -- or else consider it correct but not specific, the way Chinese and Japanese seem to feel about “Asian.”

But it’s too late for that. In fact, it was too late by the time Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful,” more than 100 years ago. And for good reason. If the name of the country is “the United States of America,” what are we supposed to call ourselves other than “Americans”? “Citizens of the United States” will do for formal contexts, but it’s too wordy for conversation.
Over the years, though, I have heard your objection -- sometimes strongly worded -- from Latin Americans. For that reason, when talking with them, I try to be sensitive and say I’m “from the United States.” But when talking with anybody else, I proudly call myself “American.”

P.S.: As far as I know, Canadians dislike being called “American.” They’re proud to be Canadian and don’t want people confusing them with us.

Susan Hall, of Gaylord, Mich., writes: “Is it ‘no rest for the weary’ or ‘no rest for the wicked’? I learned it one way but keep hearing it said the other. I haven’t corrected anyone, but it does grate on my ears. Also, do you know the origin of the saying?”

Dear Susan: Actually, the original phrase is “no peace for the wicked,” and it comes from the Bible. It appears twice in the Book of Isaiah: “This is what the Lord says ... ‘If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea ... There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked.’” And “The wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’”

But please note that “tossing sea, which cannot rest.” The idea of peace and that of rest have a lot in common. Thus “no rest for the wicked” probably became the common phrase through misremembering. (The same happened with “gild the lily,” which began as Shakespeare’s “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”) At any rate, “no rest for the wicked” has been a set phrase at least since 1876, when it appeared in the caption of a cartoon on the cover of an issue of Harper’s Weekly.

As for “no rest for the weary,” superficially it makes more sense, don’t you think? This idea too, though not the exact wording, can be found in the Bible, in the Book of Lamentations: “Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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