Further Antedating of "African-American"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Sep 25 17:58:34 UTC 2011

This case resembles Cary Grant's use of "gay" in that current usage makes it
difficult to determine what was actually intended.

I find the implicit contrast between "African-Americans" and "free negroes"
quite puzzling.

If the "free negroes" are American "freed" Negroes, why mention
"African-Americans" at all? Wouldn't they all be "African-Americans" in that
case? Why should "African-American"   exclude freed slaves?

Maybe they're Africans who are "free" because they were already living there
and had never been enslaved. This seems likely to me.

That would indeed seem to make "African-Americans" equivalent to "Americans
of African descent."

But it isn't that simple. Could it be that "African-Americans" really means
"Africanized Americans," i.e., white missionaries who also settled there?
This sounds unlikely by modern standards, but I'm not sure what the
interpretation might have been nearly 200 years ago. Since
"African(-)American" was evidently not a familiar phrase by 1832, it seems
very possible to me that it refers to American whites living in Africa.
Their number may have been negligible, but an 1832 publication may have
given them prominence simply because they *were* white and *had* moved to
Africa. This might be particularly so since Liberia is understood to be an
"American colony."

In that case, the "free negroes" would consist of both free (African)
Negroes, and "freed" American Negroes. In other words, no Negroes in the
colony are enslaved, as a British reader might otherwise have suspected of
an American colony founded in Africa.

And the number of whites may have not been entirely negligiblel. Acc. to
_American Colonization Society and the Colony at Liberia_ (1831; GB), in
1830, "Four ships, with 315 emigrants, one hundred and ninety-eight of whom
were emancipated slaves, arrived at the colony." Presumably most of the 117
others were free black Americans, but the white population of Liberia in
1831-32 needs be looked into.

I can't say whether early usage would have favored the designation
 "American African colony." GB finds just one 19th C. ex. (but no ex. of
"African American colony").  The results for "... settlement" are
comparable. However, "American colony in Africa"  turns up over 70 raw hits.
Stylistically that was clearly the favored idiom.

As I read the 1822 passage, however, I feel that it is more likely to mean
"American colony in Africa."

Why? Primarily because the evidence shows that "African(-)American" was not
a familiar designation for American blacks in 1822. Unlike us, readers would
not have expected that meaning: at first glance, they might not know what it
meant. "African American Colony" has the advantage over "American African
Colony" in that it immediately tells the reader that Africa is a more
important element than America. Furthermore, thinking of it as an "African,
American colony" emphasizes that the Americans are colonizing Africa,
something possibly more newsworthy than the idea that black Americans are
settling in Africa.  But there is no way for me to be certain.

It does seem significant, however, that *both* of these extraordinarily
early exx. of "African American" can be read ambiguously. That's not a good
sign. Nor is the fact that they come ten years apart with nothing at all in

Thus I'm inclined to be skeptical of both exx. They require brackets.


On Sun, Sep 25, 2011 at 11:48 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: Further Antedating of "African-American"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Well, I still disagree.
> Fred wrote:
> >1832 _Edinburgh Encyclopedia_ XVII. 275 (Google Books)  Since the
> >year 1822 the Americans have founded a colony at the mouth of the
> >river Mesavada, to the south of Sierra Leone.  This colony has been
> >called Liberia, and the principal town Monrovia.  The population
> >consists of African-Americans, and of free negroes.
> (The containing article is on Sierra Leone, and was written before
> the Republic of Liberia was declared.in 1847.)
> This clear association with Liberia and 1822 only reinforces, in my
> mind, that the 1822 and 1832 "African-American" have the same meaning
> -- Americans of African descent.
> Fred wrote:
> >My response to Joel is the following:  Liberia was frequently
> >referred to as "the American colony."  "African American colony"
> >meant the American colony in Africa.  It is a collocation that only
> >coincidentally looks like the phrase "African-American" in its
> >familiar meaning.
> I don't think the collocation is "only coincidental", given the 1822
> and 1832 quotations.  And if the meaning was "the American colony in
> Africa", wouldn't the 1822 article title have been "American African
> colony" in that order?  (Or "American colony in Africa"?)
> At 9/25/2011 08:31 AM, Victor Steinbok wrote:
> >The best part here is that it shows the evolution from [African
> >[American colony]] to [African-American]--but, although this is a noun
> >and it's completely integral, the meaning is still "Americans in
> >Africa", not "Americans /from/ Africa".
> [Here Victor is referring to Fred's 1832 quotation.]  This is the
> essence of the disagreement.  I say that it is *Americans* who were
> *from Africa* -- either by birth or descendants of such -- that is
> meant by "African-American" in the 1822 quotation.  There can be no
> question that it is *Americans*, "of color" and "free black", that
> emigrated -- they left from Charleston.
> And I see the same meaning, "Americans of African descent", in Fred's
> 1832 quotation (I assume he does too, since he provided it here as an
> antedating of the OED's 1855 quotation.)  But if the 1822 quotations
> means "Americans in Africa", as Victor says, then isn't that also
> true of the 1832 quotation -- both don't qualify?
> >I am assuming, also, that "free
> >negroes" refers to the indigenous population.
> I frankly think the Edinburgh Encyclopedia description is off-base or
> loose: "The population consists of African-Americans, and of free
> negroes."  In the 1822 quotation the "free negroes" have left
> America:  "Several free persons of color, and one young black man,
> who had been implicated in the late plot at Charleston, sailed from
> that place ...".  And "free negroes" at this time and in this context
> meant "freed", not "born free".  Thus the "free negroes" are not
> indigenous to Liberia.  And surely by "African-Americans" the
> Edinburgh Encyclopedia did not mean native Africans who were (now)
> living in an "American colony".  (As I wrote earlier, Liberia was
> never an American dependency; the land was purchased for the American
> Colonization Society, a private organization, governed by the
> residents, and declared a republic in 1847.)
> Certainly loose is the wording "the Americans have founded a colony
> ...".  This does not distinguish the American government (the U.S.)
> from a private enterprise.  (While the 1822 article also does not
> explicitly distinguish government from private -- it says "the
> American colony on the African coast" -- I read that as "the colony
> of Americans".)
> >Of course, there is a
> >subtext that the "Americans" who ended up in Liberia are themselves
> >/from/ Africa,
> This of course is my argument (except for *sub*text).  And "from"
> means "born in or descendants of persons born in".
> >so it may well be a moot point. However, the question
> >remains as to when the tag "African-American" stopped being applied to
> >someone who was physically in Africa.
> I doubt that it ever meant broadly "someone [American] who was
> physically in Africa".  Surely such a label surely would not have
> been acceptable to/for a white American in Africa.  It could only
> have been applied to someone "of African origin; a black American",
> as in the OED definition.
> Joel
> >Both types of finds are significant--and I don't want to discount Joel's
> >pair in the least--but the significance is rather different.
> >
> >VS-)
> >
> >On 9/25/2011 8:02 AM, Shapiro, Fred wrote:
> >>African-American (OED3 1855)
> >>
> >>1832 _Edinburgh Encyclopedia_ XVII. 275 (Google Books)  Since the
> >>year 1822 the Americans have founded a colony at the mouth of the
> >>river Mesavada, to the south of Sierra Leone.  This colony has been
> >>called Liberia, and the principal town Monrovia.  The population
> >>consists of African-Americans, and of free negroes.
> >>
> >>NOTE:  Although the 1832 dating appears to be accurate based on the
> >>digitized title page, one never knows with Google Books, so this
> >>would need to be verified in the print before being accepted.
> >>
> >>
> >>Fred Shapiro
> >>Editor
> >>YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)
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