Don’t Say You’re An ‘American’

We are conditioned so effectively to play artificial roles that we mistake them for our true nature. JeanJacques

John, an expat who recently relocated to Colombia, approached the desk at the Medellín immigration office. “Cómo puedo ayudarte” (how can I help you), the lady behind the glass window at the reception counter asked?

John had no idea what she was saying, so he shook his head and said, “I want to apply for a visa. Does anyone here speak English?”

The lady at reception rolled her eyes and called over her supervisor who responded in English and looked over the information John had provided in the online application. “What is your nationality,” the supervisor asked?

“I’m American,” John replied in a matter of fact manner.

“We are Americans too Señor. What is your country of origin,” the supervisor insisted, knowing the answer but refusing to let John off the hook?

John was baffled by the supervisor’s response and clearly agitated at this point. He raised his voice–so much so that everyone in the waiting area looked in his direction–and said, “I’m from the USA which means I’m an AMERICAN!”

“I’m sorry,” the supervisor said as he pointed to the choices on the application form. “That is not a category we recognize here in Colombia. If you are from the USA, you must tick the ‘Estadounidense’ box.”

“What the hell is that,” John quipped, showing his confusion and frustration at what he perceived to be the astounding ignorance of the immigration official as well as the bureaucracy which employed him?

In the end, John left the immigration office in a huff and followed the advice of his expat friends to pay an agency to complete the rather lengthy visa process for him. What John failed to acknowledge, however, was his own ignorance of the foreign system he had attempted to navigate on his own, without the necessary language skills or background knowledge of how things are done in a culture quite different from his.

John, like most Americans, grew up believing that he and his fellow citizens owned the rights to the term ‘American’. I grew up with this belief as well, but once I started traveling my eyes were opened to the larger world of ambiguity that often lies just on the other side of what we’ve been taught to accept as a hard and fast rule.

Map from the ‘America is NOT a Country It’s a Continent’ Facebook page.

A Bit of historical background

The first use of the word ‘America’ was in Cartographer Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 treatise Cosmographiae Introductio where he described, “the western hemisphere, North and South America.” The word is derived from modern Latin Americanus, after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) who made two trips to the New World as a navigator and claimed to have discovered it.

This led to the indigenous people of the New World being called Americans and later the British used the term to refer to their colonists in the New World.

The United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 refers to “the thirteen united [sic] States of America.” Prior to this, the term ‘United Colonies’ had been used.

John Adams, in his first inaugural address in March 1797, referred to America as the country to which he had just been elected president. With the advent of nationalism came the need for a united citizenry which gradually adopted the demonym ‘American’, previously bestowed by their British forefathers.

However, that doesn’t mean that the usurpation of the term American has gone unchallenged. As with many aspects of defining international borders, the messiness of colonial legacies and beliefs surrounding national identity, things aren’t always as simple as they might seem on the surface.

Early and On-going Debate

While it isn’t a topic that’s often presented in US History classrooms, the debate over an appropriate demonym for US citizens isn’t new. In fact, the concept of being politically correct often cited by conservative politicians as a contemporary problem has been around for well over a century.

Some citizens, such as writer Edgar Allen Poe, believed the name of their country was too general and exclusionary and therefore promoted other more specific terms. In 1846, Poe wrote, “There should be no hesitation about ‘Appalachia.’ In the first place, it is distinctive. ‘America’ is not, and can never be made so. We may legislate as much as we please, and assume for our country whatever name we think right — but to use it will be no name, to any purpose for which a name is needed, unless we can take it away from the regions which employ it at present. South America is ‘America,’ and will insist upon remaining so.”

Perhaps following Poe’s lead, writer James Duff Law championed the term ‘Usonia’ as a name for the country and ‘Usonian’ as the demonym. In his Here and There in Two Hemispheres (1903), he wrote, “We of the United States, in justice to Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title ‘Americans’ when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves.”

Seeking to redefine the American landscape just as he had done in the field of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright also promoted the use of the terms Usonia and Usonian respectively.

Writer H. L. Mencken collected a number of demonym proposals that had been made between 1789 and 1939, finding terms including Columbian, Columbard, Fredonian, Frede, Unisian, United Statesian, Colonican, Appalacian, Usian, Washingtonian, Usonian, Uessian, U-S-ian, Uesican and United Stater.

Needless to say, none of these campaigns were successful in replacing terms that had been firmly instilled in the country’s collective conscience.

Yes, let’s do–ALL of it!

International recognition

The vast majority of English-speaking expats I’ve worked with around the world readily accept and use the term American when they refer to citizens of the USA, although I have been teasingly called a ‘Yank’ by some of my British colleagues.

So, the use of American as the demonym for US citizens appears to be the norm in most native English-speaking countries. However, when referring to the country, these same expat colleagues used either the United States or more often ‘The States’, but they would rarely call the country ‘America’. Still, it isn’t unusual to read articles in international news sources such as the BBC that use the word ‘America’ when reporting about events in the USA.

Many countries have a colloquial term that covers all foreigners such as ‘laowai’ in Mandarin Chinese, ‘gaijin’ in Japanese and ‘farang’ in Thai, but they may still use derivatives of the word America in more formal situations. For example, citizens of the USA would be referred to as ‘Amerika-jin’ in polite Japanese conversation.

The Latin American Context

The term ‘gringo’ when used in Latin America most often refers to citizens of the USA (regardless of skin color), but may also be used to refer to Europeans or even Hispanics who don’t speak Spanish or may seem out of touch with Latino culture.

Indeed, it’s in Latin America that we find the most virulent disapproval of the use of  the word America to refer to a single country and American to describe one nation’s citizens. Such disapproval shouldn’t be a surprise based on the shared geography of both North and South America, as well as the hegemonic attitude the US Government has continually displayed in its interactions with Latin American nations.

“Gringos Out.” Photo Credit: Howard Yanes/AP

The Facebook group ‘American Continent’, which has more than 3,600 followers, lists the following demonyms for citizens of the United States.

English: Usonian
Español: Estadounidense
Français: États-Unien or Américain
Português: Estadunidense

There’s also a Facebook group called ‘America is NOT a Country It’s a Continent’ that focuses more narrowly on the use of the terms America and American, but it has few followers.

Final thoughts

My Canadian friends would not only cringe if I called them Americans–by virtue of their country’s location within the Americas–they would almost assuredly be offended. Such is the negative connotation often associated with being an American abroad.

As an individual who believes in both fairness and practicality, I harbor no illusions that US citizens are going to suddenly stop calling themselves Americans. What I do aim to promote, however, is an awareness that the world is much bigger than the aspirations of one nation and its people.




Categories: Culture, PoliticsTags: , , , , ,


  1. A timely article! Thank you for bringing this distinction to light.L.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Enjoyed this one. I’m Canadian but in Mexico everyone calls me a “gringa”.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Unfortunately arrogance is something of a national trait.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Ken,

      I see 2 extremes abroad that have blossomed under our current government. Some Americans walk on egg shells trying to counter the negativity coming out of Washington, while others have become emboldened by Trump and Co and feel as if they own the entire world. Thanks for commenting!


  4. Didn’t realize there was so much debate over America, the name.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Jane,

      The historical aspect was news to me as well. I’m aware of more recent objections to the use of America and Americans, particularly in Latin America. It’s interesting to reflect back on what Americans have been taught in history classes. The conflicts and disagreements between the country’s founding fathers was never mentioned (at least in my classes) as if everyone was on the same page of agreement. If you haven’t seen the HBO series “John Adams”, I highly recommend it. It presents many of the major conflicts and does a good job (based on other sources I’ve read) of presenting a realistic portrait of those times. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post, Henry! Interesting and informative.

    Like Jane, I was unaware of the debate over the demonym, America. As a person born in Anglophone Guyana–located on the mainland of South America, but with historical, economic, and cultural ties to the Caribbean Region–I consider myself to be of both South American and Caribbean origin. While living in Brazil, I became a “gringa” from “Guiana Inglesa.”

    How we self identify as a nation matters. Perhaps the use of the demonym America by the early leaders of the united states of [North] America may have its roots in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      Yes, I agree that the gist of the Monroe Doctrine aimed to create a situation whereby the USA could exert its influence over the Western Hemisphere. It’s clever how the once-ruled learn and execute the same strategies used by their former rulers to gain and maintain power.

      Thanks for sharing your personal experience. It’s fascinating to consider how others view us (and how we view ourselves) as we attempt to integrate into a new culture. It can become quite complicated at times.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. OMG! Way too much stuff about where someone is from. I don’t even know where I’M from after that. LOLOL When I was in Italy and Paris, I just said American/Chicago and everyone was okay with that. I had no idea things were so confusing. Why would Canadians EVER want to be associated with us? Who would? We are horrible, especially with the idiot destroying the country. Blah. Easy to see why so many people despise us.

    But it’s not the people who are awful, it’s really the idiots in Washington. And, here’s the thing. If the people who hate us were born here, they would BE us. It’s not like we had a choice, any more than they did. That’s what’s so insane about the whole thing. They would act the way we do, if they were conditioned and brainwashed the way we were. Instead they were conditioned and brainwashed they way they were because of where they were born. No one asked to be born where they were. It’s like hating people because they’re tall. Children don’t even know where they’re born, it’s not like they can make an informed decision and say, “Hmmm, maybe I don’t want to be American, or from the United States, or Mexico, or France, or anywhere else. I think I want to be Swedish.”

    If people really can’t understand where Chicago in America is, I don’t even know what to say. Or Chicago in the United States. You know what? I’ll just say Al Capone. I’ve found that EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE, knows him.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi @hitandrun1964. Yes, things can get complicated living outside those borders. I don’t mean to generalize about Americans because I’ve lived in multiple corners of the country and realize there are many Americas. The people of that land are some of the most generous on the planet and I’ve also been witness to that as I’ve traveled and lived around the world.

      The BIG problem is that whatever democracy once existed in the USA has long since been replaced by a corporatocracy, run by and for CEOs and shareholders. War and sales of WMDs are good for those bottom lines, as is factory farming and the horrible meat industry. Now, we’re exporting mass shootings to the rest of the world.

      I believe in the concept of karma, so there has to be a reckoning on a national level at some point, and maybe Trump is the catalyst for that. May all the gods help us to see the light finally and learn from our sordid history.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I must say I like Edgar Allan Poe’s term “Appalachia”.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you for the thorough argument, Henry, I’ve never seen it expressed so convincingly. It’s an affectation that allows US to perpetuate assumptions that are in fact presumptions. And it’s only become uglier: an automatic (even autonomic) declaration based on faulty understanding — a misunderstanding that occurs before you enter Kindergarten, and another stupid and shallow soundbite, an earworm even 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Reblogged this on billziegler1947 and commented:
    A refreshing perspective on a nearly autonomic response, reblogged from MyQuest dot blog.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Great stuff, well pointed out to more than a few, clearly!

    – Esmeralda upon the Cloud

    Liked by 2 people


    Liked by 2 people

  12. Great points! It’s a tough situation because there really isn’t a universally accepted phrase in English or in the United States, in particular, to refer to United States residents. So I can see why people use the term “American.” There’s nothing in popular usage that’s equivalent to “estadounidense,” which I find to be a great word because its specificity. I saw one of the terms you found was “usonian,” but I’ve never heard that used in practice.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I don’t think most of the terms H. L. Menken collected have ever been used in practice. It was interesting to see, however, that there was a time when such proposals were being made. I can’t imagine that happening in the current “America First” climate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  13. Peace!
    I get the point.
    We are either North American or South American. Although part of North America, there are also, Central Americans.
    Eventually, we are all Americans. Eventually we are all denizens of the planet.
    Still, it is called the United States of America. We do not call our country the Canada of America. Columbia does not call itself Columbia of America, etc.
    The Americas is a term I have heard for our entire hemisphere.
    Interesting post, thank you!
    Trump’s hats could say, Make The United States of America Great, Again. That would be less arrogant, and more correct.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Excellent article. I teach Latin American History in a Caribbean country. Thanks to US media influences my students often default to the “America” as a country. Before my first year students had up their first essays, I pull a map of the Americas and make it very clear that the United States is a country which is part of the greater continent. As most of them are also Spanish students I remind them of the term ‘estadounidense’ as well. Glad to see I’m not alone in my battle to explain the correct meanings of these terms 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for sharing those thoughts KD, and for the ‘follow’. I’m very happy to have discovered your blog as well since there’s SO much I want to learn about the entirety of Latin America. As you noted on your blog, researching the history of a region is key to understanding events taking place today. I look forward to exploring your writing in more depth as time allows.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I appreciate it that you are shining a light on the mistakenly narrow use of “America” and “Americans”. I have become quite sensitive to the use of those words, knowing that they do not apply to just one country. Certainly, I have met plenty of people who are quick to correct someone who uses those words for people from the USA. That being said, I have been quite surprised when I have heard people in Colombia refer to the USA and its citizens as “America” and “Americans”. I don’t recall hearing that when I was living in Mexico. “Estadounidense” is the norm for citizens of the USA. I always thought that it was a little odd that that word would be the norm, when the official full name of Mexico is “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”. So, therefore, Mexicans could equally be named “Estadounidenses”.

    The best bet is to refer to oneself (if from the USA) as a citizen of the United States of America, thereby sidestepping any possibility of offending.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Carolyn,

      Yes, you bring up a good point since the citizens of the United States of Mexico call themselves Mexicans rather than ‘Estadounidenses’. I think the problem goes back to the USA assuming it controls the use of the much more broadly-based terms ‘America’ and ‘Americans’, although Mexico and its people would be just as entitled to use them as their northern neighbor. Some folks will dismiss all this discussion as politically correct nonsense, but I do think it’s important for citizens of the USA to be made aware of how they are viewed by citizens of other countries in their hemisphere. If for no other reason, it’s just smart from a business point of view. All those ‘American’ products–from retailer’s shelves to the ubiquitous ‘American’ food chains–might not be so popular if we piss off local consumers.

      As for me, in general conversation, I usually say I’m from another galaxy which tends to shut off any further questions about my nationality. Thanks for reading and weighing in on this topic!


  16. I don’t think the question is so complicated. We have geographical/ continental designations in English called the Americas. We divide the continent in two and make it plural. To Spanish speakers, it’s one continent, America. In a regional or geographical sense, we are all American. Okay, no big deal!

    However, the Americas are made up of a bunch of countries, and citizens of each one of these countries has his or her own nationality. Nationalities refer to country of passport, allegiance or as often as not country of origin. The United States of Mexico is more commonly and simply called Mexico. Citizens of the United States of Mexico are commonly called Mexicans. The United States of America is most commonly referred to as the United States, the US, or America. Citizens of the United States of America are commonly called Americans. We are never in English called UnitedStatesians, or UnitedStaters! Como on!

    Venezuela was once known as the United States of Venezuela; now it’s officially and regally called the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. But citizens of thst troubled country are never called Boliviarans; they are simply Venezuelans. Even Colombia, the country in question re. the incident that introduced this piece was once known as the United States of Colombia. But do Colombians refer to themselves as Americans or estadunidenses when speaking about their nationality? Absolutely not. Colombians are fiercely proud of being Colombian.

    We as Americans are totally within our rights to be called Americans simply by being citizens of the United States of America. America is our country of nationality as well as being a continent, whether thought of as singular or plural. American is our nationality for better or for worse. When a functionary at a Colombian immigration entity asks for our nationality, we are correct in saying that we are American. We are.

    There are many reasons why a bureaucrat in a foreign country might want to try to shame, or in this case simply befuddle, an American. One-upmanship, reprisal for perceived historical sleight or worse, meanness, lack of civility, abuse of power, ignorance. The list goes on and on. I’m sorry that a newbie in a new county, a country that I call mine at this point in time, was made to feel unwelcome just for being American.

    Just as a matter of interest, this afternoon I was watching a tennis match from the Miami Open with Spanish commentary. One announcer referred to John Isner, an American tennis player, as el americano. The other referred to him as el estadunidense. Point being, the designation americano to refer to an American exists and is being used day in day out. As US citizens, we are americanas, americanos, Colombian bureaucracy notwithstanding.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts Christopher. My aim in writing this piece was simply to encourage people, especially citizens of the USA, to question their assumptions about place, identity and ownership. I wasn’t proposing that US citizens stop referring to themselves as ‘Americans’, which would obviously be a futile campaign at this point.

      My personal preference is to refer to myself as a US citizen, rather than saying I’m an American, as being an “American’ comes with a set of hegemonic baggage I prefer not to own.

      Thanks again for your time in formulating such a detailed response.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Self-questioning should not and is not solely an American endeavor. I understand your position. However, residents of other countries/ cultures also need to understand their limitations. The United States of America exists. It’s a real country. Americans are real and have nothing to apologize for or to downplay. Your intro to your piece mentioned an American who was humiliated. I cannot accept that.

    For a

    Liked by 3 people

    • [Americans are real and have nothing to apologize for or to downplay.]

      I respect your opinions Christopher, however, I personally disagree with the second clause in your statement above. Rather than argue my point here, I will consider turning this into a post of its own. I have a great deal to say on the subject. 🙂

      Thanks again for expressing your point of view.


  18. I avoid using “America” for “United States” for the most part, but I’m still looking for a convincing English-language word for the nationality. In Mexico, roughly a hundred years ago when I was young, I ended up in a conversation about all this with some friends and they objected even to “Estado Unidos,” since Mexico is, formally, Los Estados Unidos de Mexico. But, hell, we’ve got to call the place something.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you just found the best word choice Ellen—HELL—at least for the moment. I love reading your blog posts so much because of your unique style of humor. You may have heard this from other readers, but I’ve always imagined Bea (Beatrice) Arthur’s voice reading your posts to me. I just loved her characters’ sense of humor–as Maud and Dorothy on the Golden Girls–and dead-pan delivery.

      I’m tired of sounding opinionated and pious while writing about topics I think are important. I can’t take my unconventional life seriously, so I’m contemplating how to present topics in a lighter format. We all need more laughter these days….and oodles of creativity–art and music. Life is always a work in progress…

      Liked by 2 people

      • First, thanks, Henry. My hope is that a light touch allows people who don’t agree with us to read us, but not everything lends itself to a lighter format. It’s an odd thing, in times which I find increasingly terrifying, that humor seems like an appropriate choice for at least some things.

        I hit the follow button on your blog yesterday and it told me that it would appear in my WP reader–which I never look at. Is there a way to follow you via email?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve sent you a PM Ellen.

        Liked by 1 person

  19. Very nice article! After more than three decades in this country, I can’t still bring myself to say “American”, because I grew up attributing the name to all citizens of this continent, and I can’t use for only those who would exclude the rest from it. Maybe you’d enjoy my article on the topic:

    Liked by 2 people

  20. I’m far from perfect Koyote, but I do my best to remind folks that we are all in this together. There can be no ‘us’ and ‘them’ if we are all to survive and even thrive on this planet.


  21. I’ve always called myself ‘Texan’ when staying my nationality, mostly due to the confusion the more broad term ‘American’ brought about when living overseas. But then people would immediately box me into a horse-riding, BBQ-eating racist .. so I readily switched to Houstonian.

    My favorite nationality description today is ‘Earthling.’ It’s rather disarming and puts me on equal footing with any person across from me, accompanying a confused, wordless smile.

    Liked by 3 people

  22. Since the name of our county is the United States if America, there is nothing else to call ourselves but Americans. That’s our name. And no other country’s name contains the word America in it. The only solution is see is the change the country’s name.

    I have more trouble when asked my ethnic group. I put American there also. Nothing else applies. Most of my ancestors have been here since the sixteen hundreds, the last one since 1750 and done for 15,000 years, they came by boat from Siberia and are sometimes called native Americans.

    Appalachian would be my second choice of ethnic group after American.

    I just self published a book on Amazon and kindle as paperback and eBook:

    Tales of Appalachia Ripples on the Etowah.
    by Ernest Harben

    Something of a picture of the North Georgia part of Appalachia in the sixties with history of the area.

    New names suggested for the country:

    Liked by 1 person

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