Destinated Americans

aeneas's travelsThe New York Times urges that “now is a good time to make our own those who have come as migrants and propose to remain as permanent residents.”

At least it did in that editorial, which appeared in 1925.

Written with an open acknowledgment of immigration quotas, the position piece speaks to 21st-century questions, however different the challenges of a different era.

Life then: Two-thirds of America’s immigrants, reports the Times, were coming from Canada and Mexico; a third of the Italians who arrived were moving back to Italy; not enough Brits and Scandinavians were coming even to fill their immigration allocations. It’s interesting that the word refugee, now everywhere in our lexicon, doesn’t make an appearance. (I wrote about the histories of the words migrant and refugee in an earlier Lingua Franca post.)

In 1925 the Times spoke of defining a “migrant as a destinated” wanderer — someone who sees the United States as a destination, a place of arrival and permanence. The U.S. is the goal, the place the migrant is going to. But there’s a tension between the two terms, one we haven’t resolved in our own time. To be destinated and to be a migrant would seem to point in different directions, the difference between purposeful and random movement. What is a destinated American, anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t record this sense of the word destinated. Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604) — the earliest English-only dictionary — merely defines destinated to mean “appointed,” and the OED’s more expansive definition adds only a further bit of contour: “appointed, predetermined, destined, fated.”

That seems to be the sense in which destinated was used throughout its 17th-century life, as if it had been specially minted to describe Aeneas’s progress from Troy to Carthage to Italy.

The OED brands destinated as “arch. or Obs.” (Arch. and Obs. are two of my favorite word categories).

Feeling destinated  yet?

There are surely those who believe they were gifted by Fortuna with every advantage they enjoy. Those happy fatalists might see themselves as having been destined to be born citizens, which means that others were destined not.

If we were to revive destinated we might use it to indicate not only the future but future location. If you’re destined to become mayor of Bigville, that’s your happy fate. If you’re a destinated  Bigvillian, it’s your happy fate to become a resident.

Today’s immigration debates demonstrate that we’re deeply embroiled in the question of the destinated American, even if we don’t use the term.

But recall that once-ubiquitous political term of art, manifest destiny. More than a century has passed since the American frontier was allegedly closed and the land war for this part of North America was equally allegedly won.

Yet millions had arrived in North and South America, not because they were destinated for the New World’s shores, or because they were migrants, but because they had been enslaved. If their bodies were counted, they became part of a ship’s manifest — just one more cruel irony in the way language provides us with multiple meanings, among which we pick and choose, sometimes, as here, with profound consequences.

Now, as in 1925, our issues are political, economic, social, and linguistic. Destined or destinated, migrant or immigrant, the words we deploy will describe who we are and who we decide we will be.

At least language-wise, that ‘s our destiny, and maybe our destination, too.


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