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Red, White, and Blue: the international origins of our favorite Independence Day words

Red, White, and Blue: the international origins of our favorite Independence Day words

Today, many millions of citizens of the United States will engage in a number of rituals all centered on the marking of a historic event that occurred almost two hundred and fifty years ago – namely, the ratification by the Second Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence (not the voting that passed that document, mind you – that happened on the 2nd of July; nor the day that it was signed – that happened on August 2nd, two days that are little celebrated).

Independence Day is celebrated every year on the fourth of July, and we find the occasion marked by many traditional themes and activities. As befits this distinctly American holiday, the words that we use to describe these traditional activities and themes are a mix of languages and cultures from the world over, mirroring the olio that is the United States.

One frequently hears of patriotism and nationalism on this day, two words that entered English in the 18th century. Nationalism is most likely from the German word Nationalismus, and patriotism appears to have had its first use in English (although the word patriot was adopted from the French).

Our barbecues come from Spanish, our hamburgers come from Germany, and our picnics come from France. The barbecue was taken from the Spanish word barbacoa, and has been in use in English since the end of the 17th century. Hamburger comes, in a rather self-explanatory fashion, directly from the city of Hamburg, and since the end of the 19th century has been used to describe the typically beef patty that was originally known as Hamburger steak. Picnic comes from the French word pique-nique, and has been in English use since slightly before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Our holiday has been with us since Old English and our parade was adopted from the French in the middle of the 17th century. The fireworks we so excitedly ooh and ahh over are descended from any number of languages, as fire comes from Old English, but has close relatives in German, Danish, Swedish, and Dutch, as well as cousins in Armenian, Sanskrit, and Greek.

One of the phrases commonly heard on the fourth of July, the red, white, and blue, is of distinctly American character, and so it is not at all surprising that it should be one of the more recent additions to the language, being in use for just over 150 years.

Should you find yourself celebrating this holiday, either in North America or beyond, take the opportunity to celebrate as well the linguistic richness that the English language has occasioned, both in the United States and elsewhere, as a language that is eternally open and welcoming.

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