A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why do they call it Latin America?

April 16, 1993

Dear Cecil:

Why do they call it Latin America? It always sounded like Spanish to me.

Cecil replies:

Well, you're one jump ahead of the late, great Dan Quayle, who, if memory serves, thought Latin Americans spoke Latin. Actually it's called Latin America because the countries of the New World from Mexico on south speak languages descended from Latin, namely Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

Quayle: Not that stupid

Dear Cecil:

OK, Quayle bashing is fun, even if a little dated. But I'm shocked that you of all people would perpertuate the myth of Quayle supposedly saying that Latin Americans spoke Latin. He never said it! It was a Jay Leno joke!

Cecil replies:

Actually, according to Charles Halevi, who researched this for a Chicago journalists' newsletter, the joke was introduced to the nation by Representative Claudine Schneider (R., Rhode Island). I'm told she lifted it from the Hexagon Show, a political revue that raises money for Washington-area charities. (This from George D. Krumbhaar, who says he was both Claudine's chief of staff and in the show at the time.)

Many publications reported the joke as fact during late April and early May, 1989, including Newsweek, which is where I saw it. Serves me right for believing what I read in the mainstream press.

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