Alain who is from Colombia and listens in Canada left a nice review on Apple Podcasts and also wrote, “I wonder if you could comment on the word ‘American’ when you are referring to the people of the United States. As a Colombian citizen I KNOW that me too, I am American, but at the same time I feel excluded when a person from the US says the word ‘American.’ [And he notes that I use the word American” quite often myself too.] Is it correct that The United States have appropriated this word for themselves while excluding Canadians and everything from Mexico to Patagonia?”
Alain is not alone in his thinking. Listeners from the United States have also reported having people from Brazil and Argentina upset with them for describing themselves as Americans, and I actually remember thinking about this topic when I was in South America over Christmas.
I covered this topic in my book 101 Troublesome Words, and today, I’m going to expand on that topic.
We, the people of the United States of America, have been calling ourselves Americans since before our country was even founded (as have others), and “American” is the only single word we have to refer to citizens of the United States of America.
This isn’t a new problem. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says the first objection occurred in 1791 (1), and in his 1963 book, “The American Language,” H. L. Mencken wrote, “As everyone knows, the right of Americans to be so called is frequently challenged, especially in Latin America, but so far, no plausible substitute has been devised, though many have been proposed, e.g., Unisians, United-statesians, [and] Columbards (2).”
Although all people of the American continents are actually Americans, most readers in the United States, Canada, and Europe assume that an American is a United States citizen since that’s how the word is most commonly used.
First we’ll look at the recommendations of some style guides published in the United States, and then we’ll look at some style guides published in other countries and see what they all have to say.
American Style Guides Support 'American' to Mean a US Citizen
The AP Stylebook (3) and Garner’s Modern English Usage (4) both back the use of “American” to mean a United States citizen, and despite recording all the discord about the term, Merriam-Webster says “American” to mean a citizen of the United States is “fully established.”
British and Canadian Style Guides Support 'American' to Mean a US Citizen
Lest you think I’m biasing my sources by using American books, the style guide of The Guardian, a UK paper, allows the word “American” to refer to US citizens (5), and the Canadian style guide from the Public Works and Government Services in Canada doesn’t address the topic directly, but uses “American” throughout its guide to refer to United States citizens (6).
What Should You Do?
My conclusion is that even though it’s not literally correct, it’s the accepted standard to use “American” to refer to a citizen of the United States of America, at least if you’re in an English-speaking country, because people know what it means and no better term has caught on.
People in other countries call us other things though. For example, people who speak Portuguese might call me a norte-americano (which means a North American) or an estadunidense (which means United Statesian).
I do value accuracy, so I’m going to try to be more careful about this in the future and think about when it might make sense use “United States” where I may have reflexively used “America” in the past.
Is America a Continent?
I also discovered two peripheral, but fascinating things while I was researching this topic that I want to share with you. First, I was surprised to learn that the concept of what makes a continent isn’t the same everywhere in the world. In the United States, we’re taught that there are seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America (7). So I was thinking that maybe it’s a little disingenuous for people to complain that they’re all Americans when I’d use the continent names and think of them as North Americans or South Americans. It would be kind of like West Virginians objecting to residents of the state of Virginia calling themselves Virginians.
However, apparently, in other parts of the world, people are taught that North America and South America are one continent—America—and thus there are only six continents (8). If you’re thinking about continent labels, it really is legitimate to say we’re all Americans. Furthermore, some systems combine Europe and Asia into one big Eurasian continent and teach that there are only five continents.
Other Denizen Names: It’s a Mess Everywhere!
The second interesting thing I discovered is what an illogical mess demonyms can be in general.
“Demonyn” is the word that names an inhabitant, so “Nevadan” is the demonym for people who live in Nevada; and “denizen” is the name for a person who lives somewhere, so I am a denizen of Nevada.
Weak Rules and Lots of Exceptions
There seems to be no reason why people call themselves certain things. We have Vermonters and New Yorkers, but other people call themselves Kansans and Iowans, Kentuckians and Missourians, and Wisconsinites and New Hampshirites. People have tried to come up with rules for which ending a demonym will take given its spelling, such as if the name ends in “-ia,” add an “n,” which gives us Philadelphian, and if a name ends in “-o,” add an “-an,” giving us Chicagoan (2), but there are a lot of exceptions.
Further, it’s easy to find instances in which people have two different official or accepted names. For example, the United States Government Printing Office (9) calls people of Indiana Indianians, but the state of Indiana says the official name for residents is Hoosiers (9). The feds call Massachusetts residents Massachusettsans, but the state itself calls people Bay Staters (11). Although residents of Idaho are generally called Idahoans, residents of Moscow, Idaho had a local newspaper called The Daily Idahonian. And my editor, Joe, says he’s from Connecticut and his people never know what to call themselves. Connecticuter? Conncecticutian? Nutmegger? It’s a mess.
And then, once you get into the names of countries that are undergoing political strife, it becomes even trickier. For example, in 2012, the BBC News (12) and The Guardian (13) used the name Burma, and the Associated Press called the same country by its new name, Myanmar (14). But today, The Guardian also uses Myanmar, and the BBC says it is also “gradually moving toward calling the country Myanmar,” for example, on first mention referring to the country as “Myanmar, also known as Burma.”
The best advice I can give you is if you need to use denizen labels or country names and you’re writing for a local audience, look up what the accepted name is in the region. If you’re writing for a national or international audience, check a major style guide for accepted usage.
- “America, American” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994, p. 87.
- Mencken, H.L. The American Language, The fourth edition and two supplements, abridged. New York: Knopf, 1963, p. 680-1.
- “American.” Associated Press Stylebook. http://www.apstylebook.com/online/?do=entry&id=133&src=AE (accessed September 15, 2012).
- Garner, B. “American.” Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 41.
- Marsh, D. and Hodsdon, A. (eds). “American.” Style Guide. Guardian Books. http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/a (accessed September 15, 2012).
- The Canadian Style. Public Words and Government Services Canada http://btb.termiumplus.gc.ca (accessed September 18, 2012).
- Canright, S. (Ed.). “Continent.” Picture Dictionary. NASA http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/dictionary/Continent.html (accessed September 15, 2012).
- “How Many Continents Are There?” National Geographic. http://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/faq/geography.html (accessed September 15, 2012).
- “Nationalities, etc.” U. S. Government Printing Office Style Manual. (2008) http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008/pdf/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008-7.pdf (accessed September 14, 2012).
- “Hoosier,” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoosier (accessed September 14, 2012).
- “Designation of citizens of the commonwealth,” Massachusettes Laws, Section 35. http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleI/Chapter2/Section35 (accessed September 15, 2012).
- "Should It Be Burma or Myanmar?” BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7013943.stm (accessed September 15, 2012).
- Marsh, D. and Hodsdon, A. (Eds.). “Burma.” Style Guide. Guardian Books. http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/b (accessed September 15, 2012).
- “Myanmar.” Associated Press Stylebook. http://www.apstylebook.com/online/?do=entry&id=4013&src=AE (accessed September 15, 2012).