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The meaning of the word American in the English language varies, according to the historic, geographic, and political context in which it is used. It derives from America, a term originally denoting all of the New World (also called "the Americas"). It retains this Pan-American sense, but its usage evolved over time, and due to various historical reasons the word came to denote people or things specifically from the United States of Americamarker. In modern English "American" generally refers to the United States, and in the U.S. itself this usage is almost universal, with any other use of the term requiring specification of the subject under discussion. However, this ambiguity has been the source of controversy, particularly among Latin Americans, who feel that using the term solely for the United States misappropriates it.

The word can be used as both a noun and an adjective. In adjectival use, it is generally understood to mean "of or relating to the United States"; for example, "Elvis Presley was an American singer" or "the American president gave a speech today;" in noun form, it generally means U.S. citizen or national (see Names for U.S. citizens). The noun is rarely used in American English to refer to people not connected to the United States. When used with a grammatical qualifier the adjective American can mean "of or relating to the Americas," as in Latin American or Indigenous American. Less frequently, the adjective can take this meaning without a qualifier, as in "American Spanish dialects and pronunciation differ by country", or the name of the Organization of American Statesmarker. A third use of the term pertains specifically to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, for instance, "In the 16th century, many Americans died from imported diseases during the Spanish conquest".

Other languages

The Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Italian languages use cognates of the word "American", in denoting "U.S. citizen". In Spanish, americano denotes geographic and cultural origin in the New World; the adjective and noun, denoting a U.S. national, estadounidense (United States person), derives from Estados Unidos de América (United States of America). Portuguese, has americano, denoting a person or thing from the Americas, and for a U.S. national and things estadunidense (United States person), from Estados Unidos da América, norteamericano (North American), and ianque (Yankee). In French, étasunien, from États-Unis d'Amérique, distinguishes U.S. things and persons from the adjective américain, which chiefly denotes persons and things from the United States but may also refer to the Americas; likewise, the German usages U.S.-amerikanisch and U.S.-Amerikaner observe said cultural distinction, solely denoting U.S. things and people.

The Spanish words estadounidense (United States person), norteamericano (North American), yanqui (Yankee), and gringo are Mexican, Central American, South American and European Spanish usages denoting U.S. things and persons. In personal denotation, "gringo" means a norteamericano, in particular, and anglophones in general, and, linguistically, any speech not Spanish, i.e. "She is speaking gringo, not Spanish". Cognate usages may cause cultural friction between U.S. nationals and Latin Americans who object to American English's exclusionary denotations of American.

History of the word

British Map of America in 1744.

The derivation of America has several explanatory naming theories. The most common is Martin Waldseemüller's deriving it from Americus Vespucius, the Latinised version of Amerigo Vespucci's name, the Italian merchant and cartographer who explored South America's east coat and the Caribbeanmarker sea in the early 1500s. Later, his published letters were the basis of Waldseemüller's 1507 map, which is the first usage of America. (See )

In 1886, Jules Marcou said Vespucci renamed himself from Alberigo Vespucci (Albericus Vespucius) to Amerigo Vespucci after meeting the native inhabitants of the eponymous Amerrique mountain ranges of Nicaragua that connect North America and South America, an important geographic feature of New World maps and charts. Moreover, there is the 1908 theory that America derives from Richard Amerike of Bristol, England, financier of John Cabot's 1497 expedition. Cabot is believed the first Western European on the mainland. In the event, the adjective American subsequently denotes the New World's peoples and things.

The 16th-century European usage of American denoted the native inhabitants of the New World. The earliest recorded use of this term in English is in Thomas Hacket's 1568 translation of André Thévet's book on France Antarctique; Thévet himself had referred to the natives as Ameriques. In the following century the term was extended to European settlers and their descendants in the Americas. The earliest recorded use of this term in English dates to 1648, in Thomas Gage's The English-American: A New Survet of the West Indies. In English, "American" was used especially for people in the British America, and came to be applied to citizens of the United States when the country was formed. The Declaration of Independence refers to "[the] unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America" adopted by the "Representatives of the united States of America" on July 4, 1776. The official name of the country was established on November 15, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first of which says, "The Stile of this Confederacy shall be 'The United States of America' ". The confederation articles further state: "In Witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands in Congress. Done at Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania the ninth day of July in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Eight, and in the Third Year of the independence of America." Common short forms and abbreviations are the United States, the U.S., the U.S.A., and America. Colloquial versions are the U.S. of A. and the States. The term Columbia (from the Columbus surname), was a popular name for the U.S. and for the entire geographic Americas; its usage is restricted to the District of Columbia name. Moreover, the womanly personification of Columbia appears in some official documents, including editions of the U.S. dollar.

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison use American with two different meanings, political and geographic; "the American republic" in Federalist Paper 51 and in Federalist Paper 70, and, in Federalist Paper 24, Hamilton's American usage denotes the lands beyond the U.S.'s political borders:

United States President George Washington's farewell in 1796 says: "The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation."

Originally, the name "the United States" was plural—"the United States are"—a usage found in the U.S. Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment (1865), but its current common usage is singular—"the United States is". The plural is set in the idiom "these United States".

Before the Constitutional Convention, several country names were proffered, the most popular being "Columbia". The problems of "the United States of America" as a name (long, awkward, imprecise) were discussed; the Constitution ignores the matter, using "the United States of America" and "the United States". The name "Colombia" (derived from Christopher Columbus; Sp: Cristóbal Colón, It: Cristoforo Colombo), was proposed by the revolutionary Francisco de Miranda to denote the New World—especially Spain's and Portugal's American territories and colonies; it was used in the country names Republic of Columbia and the United States of Colombia.

Early official U.S. documents betray inconsistent usage; the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with Francemarker uses the "the United States of North America" in the first sentence, then uses "the said United States" afterwards; "the United States of America" and "the United States of North America" derive from "the United Colonies of America" and "the United Colonies of North America". The Treaty of Peace and Amity of September 5, 1795 between the United States and the Barbary States contains the usages "the United States of North America", "citizens of the United States", and "American Citizens".

Semantic divergence among Anglophones did not affect the Spanish colonies. In 1801, the document titled Letter to American Spaniards—published in French (1799), in Spanish (1801), and in English (1808—might have influenced Venezuelamarker's Act of Independence and its 1811 constitution.

The Latter-day Saints' Articles of Faith refer to the American continent as where they are to build Zion.. The Old Catholic Encyclopedia's usage of America is as "the Western Continent or the New World". It discusses American republics, ranging from the U.S. to the "the republic of Mexico, the Central American republics of Guatemala, Honduras, San Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Leon, and Panama; the Antillian republics of Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Cuba, and the South American republics of Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, the Argentine, and Chile"..

Usage at the United Nations

Use of the term American for U.S. nationals is common in United Nations. The Secretary General refers to people from the United States as Americans, as has the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The UN has referred to financial markets in the United States as "American financial markets."

American Samoamarker is a recognized territorial name at the United Nations.

Political and cultural views

Latin America

The use of American as a national demonym for U.S. nationals is challenged, primarily by Latin Americans. The Luxury Link travel guide advises U.S. nationals in Mexico to not refer to themselves as Americans, because Mexicans consider themselves Americans. The Getting Through Customs website advises business travellers not to use "in America" as a U.S. reference when conducting business in Brazil.


The Diccionario de la Lengua Española (Dictionary of the Spanish Language) published by the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), defines estadounidense (United Statesman) as "someone or something from or relating to the United States", the common Spanish usage for U.S. people and things. People originating from, or who have lived in, the Western Hemisphere might be called americanos.

Moreover, the Royal Spanish Academy advises against using americanos exclusively for U.S. nationals:

English translation:


Prior to Confederation in 1867, the word "Canadian" referred only to residents of the colony of Canada, which consisted of the territory of modern Quebecmarker and Ontariomarker. The term did not apply to residents of the colonies of New Brunswickmarker, Nova Scotiamarker, Prince Edward Islandmarker or Newfoundlandmarker. Collectively, the British colonies were known as British North America, and their residents referred to themselves as "British Americans." Since the War of 1812, the term "American" acquired a pejorative context within Canada. Even since the BNA Act of 1867, which defines the word Canadamarker in its modern context, the pejorative context of the term "American" remains widespread.

Modern Canadians typically refer to people from the United States as "Americans", though they seldom refer to the United States as "America", using the terms "the United States", "the U.S.", or (informally) "the States" instead. Canadians rarely apply the term "American" to themselves – some Canadians resent being referred to as Americans because of mistaken assumptions that they are U.S. citizens or an inability, particularly of people overseas, to distinguish Canadian English and American English accents. Some Canadians have protested the use of American as a national demonym. People of U.S. ethnic origin in Canada are categorized as "American (U.S.)" by Statistics Canada for purposes of census counts.

Portugal and Brazil

Generally, Americano denotes "U.S. citizen" in Portugalmarker. Usage of americano to exclusively denote people and things of the U.S. is discouraged by the Academia das Ciências de Lisboa (Lisbon Academy of Sciences), because the specific word estado-unidense (also estadunidense) clearly denotes a "United Statesman" and a "United Stateswoman".

In Brazil, the term americano (American) is used to address both that which pertains to the American continent and, in current speech, that which pertains to the U.S.A. (the particular meaning is deduced from context). Alternatively the term "norte-americano" (North American) is also used in more informal contexts while "estadunidense" (united satesman) is the preferred form in academia. The term "América" (America) on the other hand is used almost exclusevily for the continent as the U.S.A. are called "Estados Unidos" (United States) or "Estados Unidos da América" (United States of America).

United States

"United States or American" ancestry by county, per 2000 U.S.
(Dark colors represent higher relative density)
The United States Census Bureau reports 7.3 percent of U.S. residents to be of "United States or American" ancestry based on responses to the 2000 Census long-form questionnaire (1 in 6 sample). Discrete responses of United States and American or an ambiguous response or a state-name response (excluding Hawaii) were aggregated as "United States or American". Distinct racial and ethnic groups such as "American Indian", "Mexican American", "African American", and "Hawaiian" were coded separately.

The word "American" appears in the name of the U.S. territory of American Samoamarker. American Samoa began using the word American in its title when it became a U.S. territory.

American in other contexts

American in the Associated Press Stylebook (1994) is defined as: "An acceptable description for a resident of the United States. It also may be applied to any resident or citizen of nations in North or South America". Elsewhere, the AP Stylebook indicates that "United States" must "be spelled out when used as a noun. Use U.S. (no space) only as an adjective".

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (1999) America entry reads: the "terms America, American(s) and Americas refer not only to the United States, but to all of North America and South America. They may be used in any of their senses, including references to just the United States, if the context is clear. The countries of the Western Hemisphere are collectively the Americas ".

The Pope and Vaticanmarker media releases frequently use America to refer to the United States, and American to denote something or someone from the United States.

American in international law

At least one international law uses "U.S. citizen" in defining a citizen of the United States rather than American citizen; an excerpt from the North American Free Trade Agreement:

Many other international treaties use the term American and American citizen. The Thailandmarker Treaty of Amity protects Americans and American companies. The Treaty between the United States and the Dey of the Regency of Algiersmarker on March 7, 1796 protected American citizens. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty between Francemarker and United States referred to American citizens. The 1858 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japanmarker protected American citizens and also used the term American. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between Mexicomarker and the U.S. uses the term American Government to refer to the United States, and American tribunals to refer to U.S. courts. The 1825 treaty between the United States and the Cheyenne tribe refers to American citizen. The Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War, known as Guerra Hispano Americana in Spanish, uses the word American in reference to United States troops.

American in U.S. commercial regulation

Products that are labelled, advertised, and marketed in the U.S. as "American Made" must be "all or virtually all made in the U.S." The Federal Trade Commission, to prevent deception of customers and unfair competition, considers an unqualified claim of "American Made" to expressly claim exclusive manufacture in the U.S. "The FTC Act gives the Commission the power to bring law enforcement actions against false or misleading claims that a product is of U.S. origin."

US national in other languages

English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, and Russian speakers may use the term American to refer to either inhabitants of the Americas or to US nationals. They generally have other terms specific to US nationals, such as German US-Amerikaner, French étatsunien, Japanese 米国人 beikokujin, and Italian statunitense, but these may be less common than the term American. Adjectives derived from "United States" (such as United Statesian) are awkward in English, but similar constructions exist in Spanish (estadounidense or estadinense), Portuguese (estado-unidense, estadunidense) and Finnish (yhdysvaltalainen: from Yhdysvallat, United States), and also in French (états-unien), and Italian (statunitense).

In Spanish, at least one reference reports estadounidense, estado-unidense or estadunidense are preferred to americano for U.S. nationals; the latter tends to refer to any resident of the Americas and not necessarily from the United States. In Portuguese, estado-unidense(or estadunidense) is the recommended form by language regulators but today it is less frequently used than americano and norte-americano.Latin Americans also may employ the term norteamericano (North American), which conflates the United States and Canada and generally excludes Mexico.

With the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the following words were used to label the United States Section of that organization: in French, étatsunien; in Spanish, estadounidense. In English the adjective used to indicate relation to the United States is U.S.

The word Gringo is widely used in parts of Latin America in reference to U.S. residents, often in a pejorative way but not necessarily. Yanqui (Yankee) is also very common in some regions, but it is usually pejorative. Throughout Latin America the word Gringo is also used for any foreigner from the United States, Canada, or Europe, however the true sense of the word is any foreigner.

In other languages, however, there is no possibility for confusion. Chinese měiguórén for example, is derived from a word for the United States, měiguó, where měi is an abbreviation for Yàměilìjiā "America" and guó is "country". The name for the continent of America is měizhōu, from měi plus zhōu "continent". Thus a měi'zhōurén is an American in the generic sense, and a měiguórén is an American in the US sense. Similar words are found in Korean and Vietnamese. In Swahili, the more naturalized word Marekani means specifically the United States, and Wamarekani are US nationals, whereas the international form Amerika refers to the continent, and Waamerika are the inhabitants thereof. Likewise, the Esperanto word Ameriko refers only to the continent. For the country there is the term Usono, cognate with the English word Usonia later popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright. Thus a citizen of the United States is an usonano, whereas an amerikano is an inhabitant of the Americas.

Alternative adjectives for U.S. citizens

There are a number of alternatives to the demonym "American" (a citizen of the United States) that do not simultaneously mean any inhabitant of the Americas. One uncommon alternative is "Usonian," which usually describes a certain style of residential architecture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Over the years, many other alternatives have also surfaced, but most have long fallen into disuse and obscurity. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says, "The list contains (in approximate historical order from 1789 to 1939) such terms as Columbian, Columbard, Fredonian, Frede, Unisian, United Statesian, Colonican, Appalacian, Usian, Washingtonian, Usonian, Uessian, U-S-ian, Uesican, United Stater." Nevertheless, no alternative to "American" is common.

Columbia has in the past been proposed as an alternative name for the United States, and some institutions still use the term in this sense, including the District of Columbiamarker, and Columbia University among others. It referred to the United States in the 19th Century, and when the Republic of Colombiamarker formed, that country appropriated the name, after which Columbia faded as a term for the United States.

See also


  1. Wilson, Kenneth G. (1993). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 27–28. ISBN 0231069898.
  2. Walter S. Avis, Patrick D. Drysdale, Robert J. Gregg, Victoria E. Eeufeldt, Mattheew H. Scargill (1983). Gage Canadian Dictionary. Toronto: Gage Publishing Limited, p. 37. ISBN 0-7715-9122-5 pbk.
  3. "American". From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 27, 2008.
  4. "Washington's Farewell Address 1796". From The Avalon Project. Retrieved November 10, 2008.
  5. Articles of Faith 1
  6. Catholic Encyclopedia: America
  10. "American Samoa". United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. Retrieved August 6, 2009.
  11. Real Academia Española
  12. Fee, Margery and McAlpine, J. 1997. Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage. (ISBN 0-19-541619-8) Toronto: Oxford University Press; p. 36.
  13. 97F0010XCB2001001
  14. United States - QT-P13. Ancestry: 2000
  24. Complying with the Made In the USA Standard
  25. Japanese: アメリカ人 amerika-jin
  26. Standard Mandarin pronunciation; written 美國人 (traditional), 美国人 (simplified)
  27. 美洲
  28. 미국(인) Migug(in) vs. 아메리카(인) Amerika(in)
  29. (người) Hoa Kỳ 花旗 vs. (người) Châu Mỹ 洲美; the term for the US is taken from its flag.
  30. Japanese has such terms as well, 米国(人) beikoku(jin) vs. 米洲人 beishū(jin), but they are found more in newspaper headlines than in speech, where amerikajin predominates.
  31. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, p. 88. Merriam-Webster: 1994.

Scholarly sources

  • Chapter 8: “...So near the United States”.

External links

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