The Ugliest American?

Homer Atkins, as it turns out…

despite having a book called The Ugly American named after him, is not all that ugly.

OK, he is no George Clooney. But it becomes clear that Homer’s ugly* (and OK,OK, that of Mrs. Atkins as well) is all on the outside. When the Atkins travel to the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, they quickly realize that the obstacles they must overcome in order to be of real assistance are the arrogant assumptions and the self-serving approaches of the government (ours, of course) that has enlisted them in the effort. By approaching the Sarkhanese with curiosity instead of condescension, and by refusing to give up when his original prototype for a bicycle-powered water pump is a bust, Homer is able materially to help improve the lives of his fellow earthlings. Nobody cares what his hair looks like. Nor do they care that his hands (a full-sized man’s hands by the way) are calloused and grease-blackened.

We each must decide for ourselves, of course, whose name is read when we open the envelope that reveals the “winner” in this category with innumerable nominees. But are we so ugly as a group that we’re OK with the ugliest among us leading us, and maybe even worse, representing us?

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I know, I know, you’ve seen this lots of times before, maybe ad nauseam. But, after all that came before it and all that came after it, and considering how acutely it encapsulates this person’s approach to everything and to everybody else there is, maybe we all should watch it again. Is this the way we want to be represented?

I, for one, don’t.

And if that gets me a spot on the longest Enemies List in the genre, I’ll quote the parole board official on Raising Arizona:

“OK, then.”


mid-13c., uglike “frightful or horrible in appearance,” from a Scandinavian source, such as Old Norse uggligr “dreadful, fearful,” from uggr “fear, apprehension, dread” (perhaps related to agg “strife, hate”) + -ligr “-like” (see -ly (1)). Meaning softened to “very unpleasant to look at” late 14c. Extended sense of “morally offensive” is attested from c. 1300; that of “ill-tempered” is from 1680s.

Among words for this concept, ugly is unusual in being formed from a root for “fear, dread.” More common is a compound meaning “ill-shaped” (such as Greek dyseides, Latin deformis, Irish dochrud, Sanskrit ku-rupa). Another Germanic group has a root sense of “hate, sorrow” (see loath). Ugly duckling (1877) is from the story by Hans Christian Andersen, first translated from Danish to English 1846. Ugly American “U.S. citizen who behaves offensively abroad” is first recorded 1958 as a book title.

As always, my sincere thanks to