We are conditioned so effectively to play artificial roles that we mistake them for our true nature. Jean–Jacques
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Facebook group ‘American Continent’, which has more than 3,600 followers, lists the following demonyms for citizens of the United States.
Français: États-Unien or Américain
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.
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.