Names for United States citizens
Different languages use different terms for citizens of the United States, who are known in English as Americans. All forms of English refer to these people as "Americans", derived from "The United States of America", but there is some linguistic ambiguity over this due to the other senses of the word American, which can also refer to people from the Americas in general. Other languages, including German, Italian, French, Japanese, and Russian, use cognates of "American" to refer to people from the United States. There are various other local and colloquial names for Americans.
Development of the term "American"
Amerigo Vespucci first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia's eastern outskirts as conjectured by Christopher Columbus, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to the peoples of the Old World. Martin Waldseemüller coined the term “America” (in honor of Vespucci) in a 1507 world map.
First uses of the adjective "American" referenced European settlements in the New World. "Americans" referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and subsequently to European settlers and their descendants. English use of the term "American" for people of European descent dates to the 17th century; the earliest recorded appearance is in Thomas Gage's The English-American: A New Survey of the West Indies in 1648. "American" especially applied to people in British America, and thus its use as a demonym for the United States derives by extension.
The United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 refers to "the thirteen united States of America", making the first formal use of the country name; the name was officially adopted by the nation's first governing constitution, the Articles of Confederation, in 1777. The Federalist Papers of 1787–1788, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison to advocate the ratification of the United States Constitution, use the word "American" in both its original, Pan-American sense, but also in its United States sense: Federalist Paper 24 refers to the "American possessions" of Britain and Spain, i.e. land outside of the United States, while Federalist Papers 51 and 70 refer to the United States as "the American republic". People from the United States increasingly referred to themselves as "Americans" through the end of the 18th century; the 1795 Treaty of Peace and Amity with the Barbary States refers to "American Citizens", and George Washington spoke to his people of "[t]he name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity…" in his 1796 farewell address. Eventually, this usage spread through other English-speaking countries; the unqualified noun "American" in all forms of the English language now chiefly refers to natives or citizens of the United States; other senses are generally specified with a qualifier such as "Latin American" or "North American."
International speakers of English generally refer to people from the United States as "Americans", while equivalents of "American" are used in many other languages. French, Dutch, Italian, Japanese, Filipino, Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian speakers use translations of American (Japanese: アメリカ人 rōmaji: amerika-jin), (Russian: американец, американка). In German, "US-Amerikaner" is sometimes used in official documents, though "Amerikaner" (without qualification) or "Ami" are generally used. In European Portuguese, "americano" is sometimes used in colloquial speech, but the term preferred by the Academia das Ciências de Lisboa is "estadunidense", and the term usually used in the press is norte-americano. In Brazilian Portuguese, the everyday term is usually "norte-americano" (even though this technically refers to Canadians and Mexicans as well), and "estadunidense" is the preferred form in academia.
Chinese has distinct words for American in the general sense and American in the U.S. sense. The U.S. is called 美国 (pinyin "měiguó"), while the continent of America is called 美洲 (pinyin "měizhōu"). There are separate demonyms derived from each word; a US citizen is referred to as 美国人 (pinyin "měiguó rén").
Although some Spanish speakers use the translation of "American" as well, the official Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas de la Real Academia Española nonetheless recommends instead "estadounidense" because "American" can also refer to all of the inhabitants of the continents of North and South America. In Spanish-speaking Latin America and the Caribbean, Americans are "estadounidenses", and in colloquial uses, "gringos", but the word usually has a disparaging meaning depending on the context in which it is used.
Other languages which optionally distinguish Pan-Americans from US-Americans include Japanese and Finnish; still others, such as Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Swahili, Vietnamese, and Esperanto, have two terms, neither with the ambiguity of English "American".
The only officially and commonly used alternative for referring to the people of the United States in English is to refer to them as citizens of that country. Several single-word English alternatives for "American" have been suggested over time, including "Usonian", popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the nonce term "United-Statesian". The writer H. L. Mencken collected a number of proposals from between 1789 and 1939, finding terms including "Columbian, Columbard, Fredonian, Frede, Unisian, United Statesian, Colonican, Appalacian, USian, Washingtonian, Usonian, Uessian, U-S-ian, Uesican, United Stater." Nevertheless no alternative to "American" is common in English. The only known language to have universally accepted Wright’s proposal is Esperanto, calling the country Usono and the citizens Usonanoj.
"Yankee" (or "Yank") is a colloquial term for Americans in English; cognates can be found in other languages. Within the United States, "Yankee" usually refers to people specifically from New England or the Northern United States, though it has been applied to Americans generally since the 18th century, especially by the British. The earliest recorded use in this context is in a 1784 letter by Horatio Nelson.
- "American". From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved July 23, 2012.
- Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, p. 87. Retrieved November 28, 2008.
- Holloway, Thomas H., ed. (2010). A Companion to Latin American History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 6. ISBN 978-1444338843.
- "The Charters of Freedom". National Archives. Retrieved 2007-06-20.
- Articles of Confederation, Article 1. Available at the Library of Congress' American Memory.
- Alexander Hamilton. "The Federalist no. 24".
- James Madison. "The Federalist no. 51".
- Alexander Hamilton. "The Federalist no. 70".
- "The Barbary Treaties: Treaty of Peace and Amity".
- "Washington's Farewell Address 1796". From The Avalon Project. Retrieved November 10, 2008.
- (Spanish) "El gentilicio recomendado, por ser el de uso mayoritario, es estadounidense" Unidos Estados Unidos (3) RAE. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
- Wilson, Kenneth G. (1993). "American, America". From The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Retrieved April 27, 2009.
- The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1999:1580) gives the first meaning of the noun "Usonian" as "a native or inhabitant of the United States".
- "United States". From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved May 4, 2009.
- Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994:88). First published in the December 1947 issue of American Speech.
- "Yankee". From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 27, 2008.