Who Exactly Are “Americans,” Anyway? Posted by on Apr 12, 2017 in Archived Posts

There’s a lot of disagreement about the term “American.” To whom does it refer, exactly? And why is there this controversy in the first place?

Itchy Feet: Splitting Hairs

Who would have guessed that a somewhat obscure Italian cartographer’s first name would, five hundred years after his death, be such a point of contention across half the planet?

In the 1500s, explorer and map-maker Amerigo Vespucci was the first to suggest that Christopher Columbus was wrong in thinking that Brazil and the West Indies were not in fact part of India or East Asia, but part of a unique continent. Everyone was like “wow good job Amerigo, we should name this new continent Vespucciland” and he was like “that’s dumb” and they were like “okay America it is! But let’s keep referring to the natives as Indians, because LOL,” and everyone shook hands and agreed.

Well I’m not sure those are direct quotes, but that’s the historical gist of it – and the source of a modern tiff over the eponym “American.”

As the comic demonstrates, Colombians and other South Americans are not happy that the United States has monopolized the word American to refer to citizens of that particular country. They are also natives of Amerigo’s namesake, are they not? Why aren’t they also considered Americans in popular parlance? What gives the USA the right to that word?

The trouble, of course, is linguistic.

Originally, the adjective “American” pre-dates the Revolutionary War. It was meant to refer to colonists living in British America. They were American Brits, as opposed to the regular British kind. George Washington and the other revolutionary leaders took on the adjective as a point of pride, a way to divide themselves linguistically from Britain, and the name stuck. Most other languages use some variation on “American” to refer to citizens of the United States: French = un Américain, German = Amerikaner (or “Ami” colloquially), Dutch = Amerikaan, Japanese = アメリカ人 (“amerika-jin”),  Hebrew = אמריקאי, Arabic = أمريكي, Russian = американец, and so on for many more. These languages simply followed the British lead on the matter.

But, as you might have guessed – not Spanish.

In Spanish, America is actually the word for both North and South America, together as one continent. In fact, one commenter on my comic above stated, “how many continents are there in the world? For us South Americans it’s undoubtedly six.” In English, “America” is not a continent – North and South are separate. So you can see why, to someone who speaks Spanish, using “Americans” to mean just those citizens of the USA is pretty limiting. It would be as if the term “African” only referred to people from South Africa. People from Morocco might feel a bit put out. In Spanish, people from the USA are called estadounidense, or “those from the United States” (Estados Unidos). This is the first linguistic problem: the word “America” means two different things in two different languages / cultures.

The second problem is that, frankly, unitedstatesians were pretty uncreative when naming their country. Mexico is also a collection of united states, so technically they, too, are a United States of America – but they were creative enough to come up with “Mexico.” Canada could be called the United Provinces of America, but they dreamt up “Canada.” In the USA, however, we just stuck with the quite bureaucratic-sounding “Unites States of America.” Calling oneself American is pretty much the only way to go.

So even if we had gone with “Vespucciland,” it’s possible that would eventually come to refer to both North Vespucciland and South Vespucciland, and after the colonists living in British Vespucciland declared independence and became the United States of Vespucciland, South Vespuccilandians would still get upset about using the term “Vespuccilandian” to refer only to those from the USV. Probably nothing would have changed.

What are your thoughts on the matter? How do you refer to Americans in your language? And what about people from the USA?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Alejandra:

    Finally a serious article on this matter! And as you put it, it makes now perfect sense how we ended up confused in this matter.
    Last year I was in Germany and I was surprised to learn that people outside Latin America learn that America is not a whole continent, but separated into North, Central and South, depending on the country, however, this could change to only North and South.
    It’s funny because I’m from Mexico and in our school books it is clearly stated America as a whole continent. I always thought this idea of continents was already oficially agreed internationally, and now adding the language difference… it just creates a whole mess!

  2. Jeff:

    I would think that we are called Americans, because it’s part of the name of our country. The United States of America. And it sounds better than United Statesian.

  3. Richard:

    Actually the official name of mexico is “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”

  4. Antonio:

    Americo Vespuccio was the one who discovery the rest of the land discovered by Columbus going SOUTH, not going north where USA was created as a nation centuries later. He discovered the coast lands where Brazil is now and also kept going south up to where is now Argentina. When he got back to Europe he reported his discovery indicating that those lands where actually a NEW WORLD and not the Indies as Columbus thought. That is why this new world or continent was called America, and this was around 300 years before the United States ever existed. Beside, by then that continent was being colonised by Spain and only Spain, therefore they had the right to called it the way was known since then: America. Every person born in that continent has the right to be called american as every person born in Europe has the right to be called european, and so on with africans and asians.

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