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American (word)

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American (word)

The meaning of the word American in the English language varies according to the historical, geographical, and political context in which it is used. American is derived from America, a term originally denoting all of the New World (also called the Americas). In some expressions, it retains this Pan-American sense, but its usage has evolved over time and, for various historical reasons, the word came to denote people or things specifically from the United States of America.

In modern English, Americans generally refers to residents of the United States; among native English speakers this usage is almost universal, with any other use of the term requiring specification.[1] However, this default use has been the source of complaint by some Americans who feel that using the term solely for the United States misappropriates it.[2][3] They argue instead that "American" should be broadened to include people from anywhere in North or South America, not just the United States; the critics admit their proposed usage is uncommon.

The word can be used as both a indigenous peoples of the Americas, for instance, "In the 16th century, many Americans died from imported diseases during the European conquest".


  • Other languages 1
  • History 2
  • Usage at the United Nations 3
  • Cultural views 4
    • Spain and Latin America 4.1
    • Canada 4.2
    • Portugal and Brazil 4.3
  • In other contexts 5
    • International law 5.1
    • U.S. commercial regulation 5.2
  • Alternatives 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Works cited 10
  • External links 11

Other languages

French, German, Italian, Japanese,[1] Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, and Russian[2] speakers may use cognates of American to refer to inhabitants of the Americas or to U.S. nationals. They generally have other terms specific to U.S. nationals, such as the German US-Amerikaner,[6] French étatsunien,[7] Japanese beikokujin (米国人),[8] Arabic amrīkānī (أمريكاني‎) (as opposed to amrīkī [أمريكي‎]), and Italian statunitense.[9] These specific terms may be less common than the term American.[7]

In French, états-unien, étas-unien or étasunien, from États-Unis d'Amérique ("United States of America"), is a rarely used word that distinguishes U.S. things and persons from the adjective américain, which denotes persons and things from the United States, but may also refer to "the Americas".[7]

Likewise, German's use of U.S.-amerikanisch and U.S.-Amerikaner[6] observe said cultural distinction, solely denoting U.S. things and people. Note that these are "politically correct" terms and that in normal parlance, the adjective "American" and its direct cognates are almost always used unless the context does not render the nationality of the person clear.

This differentiation is prevalent in German-speaking countries, as indicated by the style manual of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (one of the leading German-language newspapers in Switzerland) which dismisses the term U.S.-amerikanisch as both ′unnecessary′ and ′artificial′ and recommends replacing it with amerikanisch.[10] The respective guidelines of the foreign ministries of Austria, Germany and Switzerland all prescribe Amerikaner and amerikanisch in reference to the United States for official usage, making no mention of U.S.-Amerikaner or U.S.-amerikanisch.[11]

Portuguese has americano, denoting both a person or thing from the Americas and a U.S. national.[12] For referring specifically to a U.S. national and things, some words used are estadunidense (also spelled estado-unidense) (United States person), from Estados Unidos da América, and ianque ("Yankee") (both usages exists in Brazil, but aren't common in Portugal), but the term most often used (and the only one in Portugal) is norte-americano, even though it could, as with its Spanish equivalent, apply to Canadians, Mexicans, etc. as well. "Estadunidense" is the preferred form to offend or satirize the Americans, is used by extremist left-wing politicians (communists)[13] "Estadunidense" is used by a minority and it's not a common word in Brazil.

In Spanish, americano denotes geographic and cultural origin in the New World, as well as (infrequently) a U.S. citizen;[14][15][3] the more common term is estadounidense ("United States person"), which derives from Estados Unidos de América ("United States of America"). The Spanish term norteamericano ("North American") is frequently used to refer things and persons from the United States, but this term can also denote people and things from Canada, Mexico, and the rest of North America.[17]

In other languages, however, there is no possibility for confusion. For example, the Chinese word for "U.S. national měiguórén (simplified Chinese: 美国人; traditional Chinese: 美國人)[18][4] is derived from a word for the United States, měiguó, where měi is an abbreviation for Yàměilìjiā ("America") and guó is "country".[19][20][21] The name for the American continent is měizhōu, from měi plus zhōu ("continent").[22] Thus, a měizhōurén is an American in the continent sense, and a měiguórén is an American in the U.S. sense.[5]

Conversely, in Czech, there is no possibility for disambiguation. Američan (m.) and američanka (f.) can refer to persons from the United States or from the continent of America, and there is no specific word capable of distinguishing the two meanings. For this reason, the latter meaning is very rarely used, and word američan(ka) is used almost exclusively to refer to persons from the US. The usage is exactly parallel to the English word.

Korean and Vietnamese also use unambiguous terms, with Korean having Migug (미국(인)) for the country versus Amerika (아메리카) for the continent,[23] and Vietnamese having Hoa Kỳ for the country versus Châu Mỹ for the continent. Japanese has such terms as well (beikoku(jin) [米国(人) versus beishū(jin) [米洲人]), but they are found more in newspaper headlines than in speech, where amerikajin predominates.[1]

In Swahili, Marekani means specifically the United States, and Mwamarekani is a U.S. national, whereas the international form Amerika refers to the continent, and Mwaamerika would be an inhabitants thereof.[24][25][26][6] Likewise, the Esperanto word Ameriko refers to the continent. For the country there is the term Usono. Thus, a citizen of the United States is an usonano, whereas an amerikano is an inhabitant of the Americas.[28][29][30][31]


British map of the Americas in 1744.

The name America was coined by Martin Waldseemüller from Americus Vespucius, the Latinized version of the name of Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512), the Italian explorer who mapped South America's east coast and the Caribbean Sea in the early 16th century. Later, Vespucci's published letters were the basis of Waldseemüller's 1507 map, which is the first usage of America. The adjective American subsequently denoted the New World.

16th-century European usage of American denoted the native inhabitants of the New World.[32] The earliest recorded use of this term in English is in Thomas Hacket's 1568 translation of André Thévet's book France Antarctique; Thévet himself had referred to the natives as Ameriques.[32] 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.[32]

In English, American was used especially for people in the British America, and came to be applied to citizens of the United States after that country was formed in 1776.[32] 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.[33] 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 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.

The term American, however, applied as a noun to the citizens of the newly independent colonies, was not yet in general usage. In fact, it was British officials who first called the colonists “Americans”. When the drafters of the DeclarationThomas Jefferson from Virginia, for example, or John Adams from Massachusetts — talked about “my country”, they meant Virginia or Massachusetts, respectively. This situation was changed by the Revolution and the impulse toward nationalism.[34] Jefferson, newly elected president in May 1801 wrote, "I am sure the measures I mean to pursue are such as would in their nature be approved by every American who can emerge from preconceived prejudices; as for those who cannot, we must take care of them as of the sick in our hospitals. The medicine of time and fact may cure some of them."[35]

In The Federalist Papers (1787–88), Alexander Hamilton and James Madison used the adjective American with two different meanings: one political and one geographic; "the American republic" in Federalist No. 51 and in Federalist No. 70,[36][37] and, in Federalist No. 24, Hamilton used American to denote the lands beyond the U.S.'s political borders.[38]

Early official U.S. documents show inconsistent usage; the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France used "the United States of North America" in the first sentence, then "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".[39]

U.S. President Farewell Address1796 , declaimed that "The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation."[40] Political scientist Virginia L. Arbery notes that, in his Farewell Address...
"...Washington invites his fellow citizens to view themselves now as Americans who, out of their love for the truth of liberty, have replaced their maiden names (Virginians, South Carolinians, New Yorkers, etc.) with that of “American”. Get rid of, he urges, “any appellation derived from local discriminations.” By defining himself as an American rather than as a Virginian, Washington set the national standard for all citizens. "Over and over, Washington said that America must be something set apart. As he put it to Patrick Henry, 'In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others.'"[41]
As the historian [42] Washington's countrymen subsequently embraced his exhortation with notable enthusiasm.

This semantic divergence among North American anglophones, however, remained largely unknown in the Spanish-American colonies. In 1801, the document titled Letter to American Spaniards—published in French (1799), in Spanish (1801), and in English (1808)—might have influenced Venezuela's Act of Independence and its 1811 constitution.[43]

The Latter-day Saints' Articles of Faith refer to the American continent as where they are to build Zion.[44] 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 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.[45]

Common short forms and abbreviations are the United States, the U.S., the U.S.A., and America; colloquial versions include 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 present today in the District of Columbia's name. Moreover, the womanly personification of Columbia appears in some official documents, including editions of the U.S. dollar.

Usage at the United Nations

Use of the term American for U.S. nationals is common at the United Nations, and financial markets in the United States are referred to as "American financial markets".[46]

American Samoa is a recognized territorial name at the United Nations.[47]

Cultural views

Spain and Latin America

The use of American as a national demonym for U.S. nationals is challenged, primarily by Latin Americans.[2] Spanish speakers in Spain and Latin America use the term estadounidense to refer to people and things from the United States (from Estados Unidos), while americano refers to the continent as a whole.[14][48] Up to and including the 1992 edition, the Diccionario de la lengua española, published by the Real Academia Española, did not include the United States definition in the entry for americano; this was added in the 2001 edition.[14][7][49] The Real Academia Española specifically advises against using americanos exclusively for U.S. nationals:[17]

[Translated] It is common, and thus acceptable, to use norteamericano as a synonym of estadounidense, even though strictly speaking, the term norteamericano can equally be used to refer to the inhabitants of any country in North America, it normally applies to the inhabitants of the United States.[7]


Modern Canadians typically refer to people from the United States as Americans, though they seldom refer to the United States as America; they use the terms the United States, the U.S., or (informally) the States instead.[50] Canadians rarely apply the term American to themselves – some Canadians resent either being referred to as Americans because of mistaken assumptions that they are U.S. citizens or others' inability, particularly of those overseas, to distinguish Canadian from American accents.[50] Some Canadians have protested the use of American as a national demonym.[51] People of U.S. ethnic origin in Canada are categorized as "Other North American origins" by Statistics Canada for purposes of census counts (as opposed to "Canadian").[52]

Portugal and Brazil

Generally, americano denotes "U.S. citizen" in Portugal.[12] Usage of americano to exclusively denote people and things of the U.S. is discouraged by the Lisbon Academy of Sciences, because the specific word estado-unidense (also estadunidense) clearly denotes a person from the United States. The term currently used by the Portuguese press is norte-americano.

In Brazil, the term americano is used to address both that which pertains to the American continent and, in current speech, that which pertains to the U.S.; the particular meaning is deduced from context. Alternatively, the term norte-americano ("North American") is also used in more informal contexts, while estadunidense (of the U.S.) is the preferred form in academia. Use of the three terms is common in schools, government, and media. The term América is used almost exclusively for the continent, and the U.S. is called Estados Unidos ("United States") or Estados Unidos da América ("United States of America"), often abbreviated EUA.

The Getting Through Customs website advises business travelers not to use "in America" as a U.S. reference when conducting business in Brazil.[53]

In other contexts

"American" in the 1994 Associated Press Stylebook was 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 entry for "America" in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage from 1999 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'.

Media releases from the Pope and Holy See frequently use "America" to refer to the United States, and "American" to denote something or someone from the United States.[54]

International law

At least one international law uses U.S. citizen in defining a citizen of the United States rather than American citizen; for example, the English version of the North American Free Trade Agreement includes:

Only air carriers that are "citizens of the United States" may operate aircraft in domestic air service (cabotage) and may provide international scheduled and non-scheduled air service as U.S. air carriers... Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, a "citizen of the United States" means:
(a) an individual who is a U.S. citizen;
(b) a partnership in which each member is a U.S. citizen; or
(c) a U.S. corporation of which the president and at least two-thirds of the board of directors and other managing officers are U.S. citizens, and at least 75 percent of the voting interest in the corporation is owned or controlled by U.S. citizens.[55]

Many international treaties use the terms American and American citizen:

  • 1796 – The treaty between the United States and the Dey of the Regency of Algiers on March 7, 1796 protected "American citizens".[56]
  • 1806 – The Louisiana Purchase Treaty between France and United States referred to "American citizens".[57]
  • 1825 – The treaty between the United States and the Cheyenne tribe refers to "American citizen"s.[58]
  • 1848 – The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between Mexico and the U.S. uses "American Government" to refer to the United States, and "American tribunals" to refer to U.S. courts.[59]
  • 1858 – The Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan protected "American citizens" and also used "American" in other contexts.[60]
  • 1898 – The Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish–American War, known in Spanish as the Guerra Hispano–Estadounidense ("Spain–United States War") uses "American" in reference to United States troops.[61]
  • 1966 – The United States–Thailand Treaty of Amity protects "Americans" and "American corporations".[62]

U.S. commercial regulation

Products that are labeled, advertised, and marketed in the U.S. as "Made in the USA" must be, as set by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), "all or virtually all made in the U.S." The FTC, 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."[63]


There are a number of alternatives to the demonym American as 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. Other alternatives have also surfaced, but most have 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.[64]

Nevertheless, no alternative to American is common.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b Japanese: "U.S. citizen" is amerika-jin (アメリカ人)[4]
  2. ^ Russian: "U.S. citizen" is amerikanec (американец) for males and amerikanka (американка) for females[5]
  3. ^ The first two definitions in Diccionario de la lengua española (the official dictionary in Spanish) define americano as "Native of America" [Natural de América] and "Pertaining or relating to this part of the world" [Perteneciente o relativo a esta parte del mundo], where América refers to the continent.[16] The fourth definition of americano is defined as "United States person" [estadounidense].
  4. ^ Měiguórén is the standard Mandarin pronunciation.
  5. ^ Chinese: měiguó ("United States") is written as 美国, měizhōu ("America the continent") is written as 美洲, guó ("country") is written as , and zhōu ("continent") is written as .[19][20][21][22]
  6. ^ In Swahili, adding the prefix mwa- to a word indicates a person (wa- would indicate people).[27]
  7. ^ a b [Untranslated] Está muy generalizado, y resulta aceptable, el uso de norteamericano como sinónimo de estadounidense, ya que, aunque en rigor el término norteamericano podría usarse igualmente en alusión a los habitantes de cualquiera de los países de América del Norte o Norteamérica, se aplica corrientemente a los habitantes de los Estados Unidos.


  1. ^ a b c View at Bartleby
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ a b c
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Vademecum. Der sprachlich-technische Leitfaden der «Neuen Zürcher Zeitung», 13th edition. Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich 2013, p. 102, s. v. US-amerikanisch.
  11. ^ Eidgenössisches Departement für auswärtige Angelegenheiten: „Liste der Staatenbezeichnungen“; Bundesministerium für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten: „Liste der Staatennamen und deren Ableitungen in den vom Bundesministerium für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten verwendeten Formen“; Auswärtiges Amt: „Verzeichnis der Staatennamen für den amtlichen Gebrauch in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland“
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^ Estadunidense is an Anti-American word in Brazil
  14. ^ a b c
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ a b
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^ a b
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ (Esperanto)
  32. ^ a b c d (subscription required)
  33. ^
  34. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (2015), “A Different Story of What Shaped America”, New York Review of Books, July 9 issue.
  35. ^ Letter TJ to Theodore Foster, May 1801, in Paul Leicester Ford ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson (1905) 8:50.
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^ wikisource:Washington's Farewell Address
  41. ^ Arbery, Virginia L. (1999), "Washington's Farewell Address and the Form of the American Regime"; In: Gary L. Gregg II and Matthew Spalding, Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition, pp. 204, 206.
  42. ^ Wills, Garry (1984), Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, pp. 92-93.
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^ [Original:] "1. adj. Natural de los Estados Unidos de América."
  49. ^ To access, click the magnifying glass in the upper left-hand corner. In the field titled "Lema", type "americano"; for the "Resultados" radio buttons, select "Diccionario"; in the field in the selection field for "Diccionarios", make sure that "1992 Academica Usual" is selected. Then click "Buscar".
  50. ^ a b
  51. ^
  52. ^
  53. ^
  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^
  57. ^
  58. ^
  59. ^
  60. ^
  61. ^
  62. ^
  63. ^
  64. ^

Works cited

External links

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