Pity the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s charged with describing all Americans even though they often have trouble identifying themselves.

White or Caucasian? Black, African-American or Negro? Hispanic, Latino or Spanish? And if yes, Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban or other?

Describing Americans was a simple exercise in 1790; everyone was classified as free and white, other free persons or a slave. This probably reflected the view of the people counting more than those being counted. It wasn’t until 1820 that someone noticed the population wasn’t so easily categorized, and “free colored” and “foreigners” were offered as choices. A long parade of tags began to be applied, decade after decade, to different kinds of Americans until the latest census form in 2010 offered 15 categories as well as “some other race.”

The Latino-Hispanic-Spanish issue emerged last month as the latest to face the Census Bureau as it prepares for the 2020 count. Much of the confusion has to do with the awful fact that every form since at least 1820 would get a failing grade in an anthropology class because it mixed the terms race, color, ethnicity, descent and origin — usually treating them as one and the same.

The census categories may not pass anthropology standards, but they serve the purpose of the Census Bureau — to count all Americans as accurately as possible.