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The Word América Posted by on Nov 12, 2007 in Uncategorized

In skimming through TL´s Portuguese Blog I came across Christopher O’Donnell’s excellent article on the word “America” and the controversy it can spark when used incorrectly in a foreign language.  This is an important point for our Spanish-speaking audience as well, and a problem I personally faced on my first study abroad experience in Mexico.  

Talking one day with my host father, I referred to my home country as “América”  His brow began to furrow, his face coloring, and asked “America?  Mexico is America, too!”  I quickly realized that I had fallen into an ethnocentric language trap.  Despite what we in the US might think, for Spanish-speakers, “América” refers to the land mass of North and South America and encompasses all territory from the northern tip of Canada to the southern-most point of Patagonia.  Likewise, all inhabitants of the land mass are referred to as “americanos”.  

So, what is a culturally sensitive traveler to say?  I have found that it depends on where you are.  In Mexico, the second most common term for a United States citizen is “norteamericano/a” (the most popular term is “gringo/a”, a slang word that all of my Mexican friends swear bears no negative connotation.)  The use of “norteamericano” is funny to me since it seems to be even more exclusionary, wiping out Canada and all of Central America (including Mexico!) in its reference to North America.  But, well, that’s the way it is.  Meanwhile, in Argentina the term is “estadounidense” although that country, like Mexico, uses its own dubiously inoffensive slang: yanqui (Yankee).  

Although some people can get offended when language learners use the wrong terminology, the general reaction is simply light-hearted ribbing or gentle correction.  A smile and demonstrations of  genuine interest in the local culture and language are always enough to diffuse an awkward situation!  

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