The correct meaning of “first generation,” “second generation”

On the subject of Muslims, a reader wrote:

“What happens to a second generation Westerner who was born and grows up in a Western country…”

It is a very common and regrettable mistake today, to refer to immigrants as “first generation immigrants” and to refer to the children of immigrants born here as the “second generation.” In fact, the correct meaning of “first generation” is the first generation born here. As a result of this confused habit of referring to the immigrants as the “first generation,” we not only end up with the absurdity of referring to immigrants as “first generation immigrants,” when in fact they are simply immigrants, but we also end up with the absurdity of referring to immigrants’ children born here as “second generation immigrants” instead of as “first-generation Americans.” Which results in the further absurdity that instead of the native born status of the descendents of immigrants starting with the first generation born here, the descendants of immigrants have a perpetual immigrant status starting with the generation of the immigrants.

Thus, if today’s style were applied to George Washington and his ancestors, John Washington (1630-1677), who came from England and settled in Virginia in 1656, would be a “first-generation immigrant.” John’s son, Lawrence Washington (1659-1698), would be a “second-generation immigrant.” Lawrence’s son, Augustine Washington (1695-1743), would be a “third-generation immigrant.” And Augustine’s son, George Washington (1732-1799), would be a fourth-generation immigrant. (Of course, even John Washington was not an immigrant, but a settler or colonist, since he was relocating from England to an English colony, not moving to a different country.)

However, even though the misusage may be mischievous, since it turns everyone into an immigrant and thus supports the false and destructive idea that we are a “nation of immigrants,” there is also a poetical justice in the misusage, particularly in countries like France and Britain, where many of today’s non-Western immigrants do not assimilate, so that the terms “second generation immigrants” and “third generation immigrants” do actually describe the cultural essence, though not the legal status, of the permanently non-assimilated and hostile “immigrant” population.

Yet despite the unintentionally poetically correct meaning of the current misusage, it would be better for the sake of conceptual clarity to reject the current misusage and go back to the correct usage, in which we speak of “immigrants,” and then of the “first generation” who are born here to the immigrants.

- end of initial entry -

Gintas writes:

I’ve always referred to myself as a First Generation American. Someone once pointed out I was wrong, I was Second Generation. I found that initially very confusing, because I respected this person, didn’t really do any research, decided it was a silly construction, shrugged it off, and continued to think of myself as a First Generation American.

I absorbed my grandmother’s attitude about being American: she loved America. She went through WWII in Eastern Europe, didn’t like the Russians, thought the Germans were stern, but smiled joyfully when talking about the American soldiers. My Serbian uncle once showed me a resume from a Lithuanian gal wanting to come to the U.S. My grandmother told me, “you are American, you marry an American girl.” That’s the old school.

James W. writes:

Now that was fun, Lawrence. Illuminating, and hilarous. It is a first in my experience to see a correction of this type that is not a distinction without a difference, where little things occupy little minds. But if it is true that language shapes what we think and determines what we can think about, we are indeed letting things slip away from us.

This understanding would make me a third generation American. However, I do have a sister who is a first generation un-American. More proof that what is done can be undone.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 12, 2007 10:20 PM | Send

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