Use of the word American

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American, when used as an adjective, can mean "of the United States of America" or "of or relating to the Americas"; when used as a noun, "United States citizen", "residing in the Americas", or less frequently "US English".


American in the Americas

Since 1776, the term American has gained widespread usage in reference to citizens of the United States of America. However, in recent times, some controversy has arisen over whether this usage is appropriate, or whether the term should only be used as an adjective covering the whole of the continent/s of North and South America

Proponents of the continued usage of American to refer to the United States argue that the USA is the only sovereign nation in the world with the word America in its official name. Additionally, several nations, including Mexico and Brazil, have the term "United States" in their official names. Thus, to many, referring to US citizens as Americans is convenient and legitimate, while using US could in fact be ambiguous.

Proponents of a change to the usage suggest that the word American should reflect a lexical attachment to 'America' broadly defined as the continent/s of North and South America, and that the current usage is at best inaccurate, and at worst redolent of perceived US imperialism.

There is much debate over whether citizens of countries other than the United States refer to themselves, or anybody other than the people of the USA, as 'American'. In Canada, the term 'American' is widely understood to refer exclusively to citizens of the USA. On the other hand, in Spain, people who have lived in the Western hemisphere but now live in Spain may be called Americanos ("Americans").

In discussions of geography, one might specify North America, Central America, or South America when the reference is to a continent or region. Residents of the western hemisphere rarely call themselves "North American" or "South American"; the term "Central American" is more common. Many alternative neologisms to American have been proposed to refer to the United States of America, but they have failed to garner widespread acceptance.

While the use of American to refer to people and places elsewhere in the Americas was once fairly common in the United States of America, this use has declined in recent generations, to the point that many are now uncomfortable with it. This has given rise to terms like "Mexican-American" or "Canadian-American" to refer to people of Mexican or Canadian origin living in the United States - either as first- or second-generation immigrants - and are never used to refer to natives of Mexico or Canada.

American in cultural usages

Some foods, such as hamburgers, are seen as American cuisine.

Some sports, such as baseball or American football, are seen as American, even though they may be played in other countries.

Some music, such as jazz, country music, or American folk music are seen as American, even though they may be popular in other countries.

American in other languages

English speakers commonly use American to refer to the United States only. In the United Kingdom, the use of 'US' as an adjective is preferred where it can be comfortably used, and is prevalent in media and government house-styles.

In Spanish, americano tends to refer to any resident of the Americas and not necessarily the United States; English spoken in Latin America often makes this distinction as well. In Spanish, the normal term for U.S. citizens is estadounidense (literally United-Statesian). In the Iberoamerican countries, the use of americano (literally, "American") to describe a U.S. citizen could be considered culturally aggressive, because the word in Spanish habitually includes the inhabitants of the entire New World. In Portuguese, both in Portugal and Brazil, the term estadunidense is growing and it is considered more appropriate than the common term norte-americano (literally "North American"), as from a geopolitical view North America includes Mexico and Canada in addition to the United States.

There have been a number of attempts to coin an alternative to "American" as an adjective (a demonym) for a citizen of the United States, that would not simultaneously mean a citizen of the Americas.

Seeking alternate names

Some people would restrict the use of the word "American" to indicate any inhabitant of the Americas (which Europeans tend to consider a single continent, called "America") rather than specifically a citizen of the United States; and perceive the latter usage of "American" to be potentially ambiguous, and perhaps aggressive in tone or imperialistic, a rather widespread view in Latin America.

However, many in the US assert that the word "America" in "United States of America" denotes the country's proper name, and is not a geographical indicator. They argue that the interpretation of United States of America to mean a country named United States located in the continent of America is mistaken. Instead, they argue that the preposition of is equivalent to the of in Federative Republic of Brazil, Commonwealth of Australia, Federal Republic of Germany. That is, the of indicates the name of the state. In addition, other countries use "United" or "States" in their names as well. Indeed, the formal name of Mexico is Estados Unidos Mexicanos, currently officially translated as "United Mexican States" but in the past translated as "United States of Mexico".

Regardless, many question a nation's right to formally appropriate the name of a continent for itself, citing the fact that America existed long before the United States of America. Indeed, Amerigo Vespucci (who travelled extensively throughout the Caribbean basin) never set foot on present US territory.

One counter-argument is that the United States of America is the first sovereign American state to arise from the European colonies, and therefore is perfectly entitled to lay claim to this name for itself, although the appropriation of a continental name by a single country has no historical precedent. The rebellious colonies perceived themselves, in their quest for independence, as moral representatives of all the colonized European inhabitants of the continent. This view is evident in the name of the colonial allied government, the Continental Congress. Another counter-argument is that it is not particularly unusual for a nation or organization to name itself after a geographical feature, even one that it does not uniquely occupy. Ecuador is the Spanish word for the equator, which runs through the country of Ecuador, athough other countries also lie on the equator. In addition, the United States of America is not the only entity which shares a name with a larger entity, yet is considered more well-known than the larger entity. The City of New York lies within the State of New York. However, the term New Yorker is generally used to refer to a resident of New York City.

Most proponents of the "US citizen = American" nomenclature have no problem with the simultaneous usage of "American" as an adjective for all inhabitants of the Americas, and make the distinction between the demonym for a country and the demonym for a continent (or continents). They argue that there is no reason the two cannot share the term if it is used in distinct but equally legitimate contexts.

In other cases, the motivation is not so much political as it is academic, to avoid a perceived ambiguity. For instance, in legal circles a citizen of the United States is usually referred to as a 'U.S. citizen', not an 'American citizen', which could arguably apply to citizens of other American nation states as well.

The alternatives

Attempts to create such a name have failed to gain widespread use. Proposals have included:

  • Appalacian
  • Colonican
  • Columbard
  • Columbian (drawn from the District of Columbia)
  • Frede or Fredonian
  • Nacirema
  • Pindosian (or just Pindos)
  • Statesider
  • Uesican (pronounced [juˈɛsɪkən]) or Uessian (pronounced [juˈɛsiən])
  • Unisan or Unisian
  • United States American, United Stater, United Stateser, United Statesian, United Statesman, or United Statian
  • USAian, U.S. American, Usan, USAn, Usanian, Usian (pronounced [ˈjuʒən]), U-S-ian, or Usonian (pronounced [juˈsoʊniən])
  • Washingtonian.

References to these words have been around since the early days of the republic, but American has become by far the most common term. Usonian is used in architectural circles, and Washingtonian remains as the adjective for the state of Washington and the city of Washington, D.C..

In other languages, such as Spanish, American is more ambiguous. In the Ibero-American countries, the use of "American" to refer only to U.S. citizens could be considered factually incorrect and culturally aggressive.

Several of these terms have direct parallels in languages other than English. Many languages have already created their own distinct word for a citizen of the United States:

  • United Statesian directly parallels the Spanish term estadounidense.
  • Norteamericano (North American) is common in Latin America, but suffers from the same kind of ambiguity as American, since Canadians and Mexicans, amongst others, are also North Americans.
  • In Portuguese, norte-americano is the most commonly used term. Estadunidense is gaining some popularity, specifically in Brazil, where its usage traditionally rises during times of tension with the USA.
  • Amerikan is a derogatory spelling, after the Franz Kafka novel.
  • Usonian, from Usonia, a term Frank Lloyd Wright used to describe his vision for American architecture, homes, and cities, and used by John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy.
  • The Esperanto term for the United States of America is Usono. This is generally thought to come from "Usonia". In Esperanto, one forms the word for a citizen of a given country using the suffix "-an" which means "member of". Therefore a citizen of the United States is usonano. (Such derived words are not capitalized.) Esperanto terms for the American geographic regions and their people are Ameriko/amerikano, Norda Ameriko/nordamerikano, Meza Ameriko/mezamerikano, and Suda Ameriko/sudamerikano.
  • Usanian is derived from the Ido word Usana.
  • Yankee is used all over the world but on occasion some U.S. citizens have been known to take offense at this term, particularly Southerners (residents of the Southeast United States), who use Yankee to refer to Northerners (residents of the Northeastern United States), sometimes in a derogatory way. (Some people from Scotland or Wales may use Yankee as a deliberate riposte to people from the US who refer to them as English, from the enduring misconception that England is coterminous with the United Kingdom.)
  • The colloquial term Yank for a U.S citizen, used in Britain and Australia, is a derivative of Yankee. In Australia, the Cockney rhyming slang term Sepo survives, derived from septic tank.
  • In French, États-Unien(ne), Étatsunien(ne) or Étasunien(ne) are gaining some popularity.
  • In Italian the term Statunitense (from Stati Uniti = United States) is quite widespread, especially referring to sporting events.
  • In German, US-Amerikaner may be used to avoid ambiguity or to be politically correct, but it may come across as pedantic if used conversationally. Amerikaner is in general usage in Germany, and is widely accepted to refer to the United States. Ami is a colloquialism which unambiguously refers to US citizens. The German usage of Ami is akin to the Mexican usage of Gringo, in that it can be neutral, patronizing, or perhaps even affectionate.
  • Pindos (or Pindosian) was born during UN operation in Kosovo. The initiators of this were Russian troops at Kosovo airport in Pristina. In some Southern Russian dialects pindos is a derogatory term for Greeks. Some reports indicate that its use has spread beyond Russian troops and that its meaning has likewise spread, to refer not only to soldiers.

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