The Grammarphobia Blog

A first-generation American?

Q: As an immigrant and an American citizen for nearly 70 years, I have always considered myself a “first-generation American,” and I dislike seeing the term applied to the first generation born in the US. If you haven’t addressed this, would you, please?

A: Your usage is fine, but so is the one you dislike. “First generation” can mean either the first to arrive in a new country or the first to be born there. Here’s the story.

When the noun “generation” showed up in English in the 1300s, it meant offspring or family as well as the descendants of one family or one period of time.

English borrowed the term from the Old French generacion, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, but the ultimate source is generare, Latin for to bring forth.

Chambers says all these early senses of the English noun were first recorded in Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325.

The use of the adjectival phrase “first-generation” to describe the first “generation of a family to do something or live somewhere”—showed up in the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a September 1896 letter by Cannon Samuel Barnett, Warden of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London.

In the letter, Cannon Barnett writes of meeting an American who described himself as a “first-generation man.”

Oxford has only one citation for the phrase you’ve asked about, but it’s a relatively recent example. It comes from Then We Came to the End, a 2007 novel by Joshua Ferris that describes “first-generation Americans” power-spraying the asphalt at a loading dock.

However, we’ve found several earlier examples of the usage, including one from Descendants of Aaron and Mary (Church) Magoun, of Pembroke, Mass., an 1891 book of genealogy.

Aaron’s great-grandfather, John Magoun, who came from Scotland to Massachusetts in 1670, is described in the book as “the first generation, American.”

This would support your use of the expression to describe an immigrant who becomes a US citizen. However, we’ve found another 19th-century example that uses the phrase “first-generation” to describe American-born citizens.

In No Enemy (but Himself), an 1895 book, Elbert Hubbard writes that only foreign women were willing to work in the cornfields in Indiana: “The first generation American-born, go on a strike.”

In fact, the OED says the phrase “first-generation” can be used to designate “a naturalized immigrant or a descendant of immigrant parents, esp. in the United States.”

So it’s correct (at least in the opinion of Oxford’s editors) to refer to a naturalized American citizen like you as well as an American-born child of immigrants as a “first-generation American.”

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