American (word)

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The meaning of the word American in the English language varies according to the historical, geographical, and political context in which it is used. American is derived from America, a term originally denoting all of the New World (also called the Americas). In some expressions, it retains this Pan-American sense, but its usage has evolved over time and, for various historical reasons, the word came to denote people or things specifically from the United States of America.

In modern English, Americans generally refers to residents of the United States; among native English speakers this usage is almost universal, with any other use of the term requiring specification.[1] However, this default use has been the source of controversy, particularly among Latin Americans, who feel that using the term solely for the United States misappropriates it.[2][3] They argue instead that "American" should denote persons or things from anywhere in North, Central or South America, not just the United States, which is only a part of North America.

The word can be used as both a noun and an adjective. In adjectival use, it is generally understood to mean "of or relating to the United States"; for example, "Elvis Presley was an American singer" or "the American President gave a speech today". In noun form, it generally means U.S. citizen or national. The noun is rarely used in American English to refer to people not connected to the United States.[1] When used with a grammatical qualifier, the adjective American can mean "of or relating to the Americas", as in Latin American or Indigenous American. Less frequently, the adjective can take this meaning without a qualifier, as in "American Spanish dialects and pronunciation differ by country", or the name of the Organization of American States. A third use of the term pertains specifically to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, for instance, "In the 16th century, many Americans died from imported diseases during the European conquest".

Other languages[edit]

English, French, German, Italian, Japanese,[a] Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, and Russian[b] speakers may use cognates of American to refer to inhabitants of the Americas or to U.S. nationals. They generally have other terms specific to U.S. nationals, such as the German US-Amerikaner,[6] French étatsunien,[7] Japanese beikokujin (米国人?),[8] Arabic amrīkānī (أمريكاني‎) (as opposed to amrīkī [أمريكي‎]),[citation needed] and Italian statunitense.[9] These specific terms may be less common than the term American.[7]

In French, états-unien, étas-unien or étasunien, from États-Unis d'Amérique ("United States of America"), is a rarely used word that distinguishes U.S. things and persons from the adjective américain, which denotes persons and things from the United States, but may also refer to "the Americas".[7]

Likewise, German's use of U.S.-amerikanisch and U.S.-Amerikaner[6] observe said cultural distinction, solely denoting U.S. things and people. Note that these are "politically correct" terms and that in normal parlance, the adjective "American" and its direct cognates are almost always used unless the context does not render the nationality of the person clear. For this reason, the style manual of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (one of the leading German-language newspapers) dismisses the term U.S.-amerikanisch as both ′unnecessary′ and ′artificial′ and recommends replacing it with amerikanisch.[10] The respective guidelines of the foreign ministries of Austria, Germany and Switzerland all prescribe Amerikaner and amerikanisch for official usage, making no mention of U.S.-Amerikaner or U.S.-amerikanisch.[11]

Portuguese has americano, denoting both a person or thing from the Americas and a U.S. national.[12] For referring specifically to a U.S. national and things, the words used are estadunidense (also spelled estado-unidense) (United States person), from Estados Unidos da América, and ianque ("Yankee"), but the term most often used is norte-americano, even though it could, as with its Spanish equivalent, apply to Canadians, Mexicans, etc. as well.

In Spanish, americano denotes geographic and cultural origin in the New World, as well as (infrequently) a U.S. citizen;[13][14][c] the more common term is estadounidense ("United States person"), which derives from Estados Unidos de América ("United States of America"). The Spanish term norteamericano ("North American") is frequently used to refer things and persons from the United States, but this term can also denote people and things from Canada, Mexico, and the rest of North America.[16]

In other languages, however, there is no possibility for confusion. For example, the Chinese word for "U.S. natural" is měiguórén (simplified Chinese: 美国人; traditional Chinese: 美國人)[17][d] is derived from a word for the United States, měiguó, where měi is an abbreviation for měizhōu ("America [the continent]") and guó is "country".[18][19][20] The name for the American continent is měizhōu, from měi plus zhōu ("continent").[21] Thus, a měizhōurén is an American in the continent sense, and a měiguórén is an American in the U.S. sense.[e]

Korean and Vietnamese also use unambiguous terms, with Korean having Migug (미국(인)) for the country versus Amerika (아메리카) for the continent,[22] and Vietnamese having Hoa Kỳ for the country versus Châu Mỹ for the continent.[citation needed] Japanese has such terms as well (beikoku(jin) [米国(人) versus beishū(jin) [米洲人]), but they are found more in newspaper headlines than in speech, where amerikajin predominates.[a][citation needed]

In Swahili, Marekani means specifically the United States, and Mwamarekani is a U.S. national, whereas the international form Amerika refers to the continent, and Mwaamerika would be an inhabitants thereof.[23][24][25][f] Likewise, the Esperanto word Ameriko refers to the continent. For the country there is the term Usono. Thus, a citizen of the United States is an usonano, whereas an amerikano is an inhabitant of the Americas.[27][28][29][30]


British map of America in 1744.

The name America was derived by Martin Waldseemüller from Americus Vespucius, the Latinized version of Amerigo Vespucci, the name of the Italian merchant and cartographer who explored South America's east coast and the Caribbean Sea in the early 16th century. Later, Vespucci's published letters were the basis of Waldseemüller's 1507 map, which is the first usage of America. The adjective American subsequently denotes the New World's peoples and things.

16th-century European usage of American denoted the native inhabitants of the New World.[31] The earliest recorded use of this term in English is in Thomas Hacket's 1568 translation of André Thévet's book France Antarctique; Thévet himself had referred to the natives as Ameriques.[31] In the following century, the term was extended to European settlers and their descendants in the Americas. The earliest recorded use of this term in English dates to 1648, in Thomas Gage's The English-American: A New Survet of the West Indies.[31][contradiction] In English, American was used especially for people in the British America, and came to be applied to citizens of the United States when the country was formed.[31] The Declaration of Independence refers to "[the] unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America" adopted by the "Representatives of the united States of America" on July 4, 1776.[32] The official name of the country was established on November 15, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first of which says, "The Stile of this Confederacy shall be 'The United States of America'". The Articles further state:

In Witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands in Congress. Done at Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania the ninth day of July in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Eight, and in the Third Year of the independence of America.

Common short forms and abbreviations are the United States, the U.S., the U.S.A., and America; colloquial versions include the U.S. of A. and the States. The term Columbia (from the Columbus surname), was a popular name for the U.S. and for the entire geographic Americas; its usage is present today only in the District of Columbia's name. Moreover, the womanly personification of Columbia appears in some official documents, including editions of the U.S. dollar.

In The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison used American with two different meanings: political and geographic; "the American republic" in Federalist No. 51 and in Federalist No. 70,[33][34] and, in Federalist No. 24, Hamilton used American to denote the lands beyond the U.S.'s political borders.[35]

Washington's Farewell Address

United States President George Washington's 1796 Farewell Address said, "The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation."[36]

Early official U.S. documents show inconsistent usage; the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France used "the United States of North America" in the first sentence, then "the said United States" afterwards; "the United States of America" and "the United States of North America" derive from "the United Colonies of America" and "the United Colonies of North America". The Treaty of Peace and Amity of September 5, 1795 between the United States and the Barbary States contains the usages "the United States of North America", "citizens of the United States", and "American Citizens".[37][improper synthesis?]

Originally, the name "the United States" was plural—"the United States are"—a usage found in the U.S. Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment (1865), but its current usage is singular—"the United States is". The plural was set in the term "these United States".[38]

Semantic divergence among Anglophones did not affect the Spanish colonies. In 1801, the document titled Letter to American Spaniards—published in French (1799), in Spanish (1801), and in English (1808)—might have influenced Venezuela's Act of Independence and its 1811 constitution.[39]

The Latter-day Saints' Articles of Faith refer to the American continent as where they are to build Zion.[40] The Old Catholic Encyclopedia's usage of America is as "the Western Continent or the New World". It discusses American republics, ranging from the U.S. to

...the republic of Mexico, the Central American republics of Guatemala, Honduras, San Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Leon, and Panama; the Antillian republics of Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Cuba, and the South American republics of Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, the Argentine, and Chile.[41]

Usage at the United Nations[edit]

Use of the term American for U.S. nationals is common in United Nations,[citation needed]and financial markets in the United States are referred to as "American financial markets".[42]

American Samoa is a recognized territorial name at the United Nations.[43]

Cultural views[edit]

Spain and Latin America[edit]

The use of American as a national demonym for U.S. nationals is challenged, primarily by Latin Americans.[2] Spanish speakers in Spain and Latin America use the term estadounidense to refer to people and things from the United States (from Estados Unidos), while americano refers to the continent as a whole.[13][44] Up to and including the 1992 edition the Diccionario de la lengua española, published by the Real Academia Española, did not include the United States definition in the entry for americano; this was added in the 2001 edition.[13][g][45] The Real Academia Española specifically advises against using americanos exclusively for U.S. nationals:[16]

[Translated] It is common, and thus acceptable, to use norteamericano as a synonym of estadounidense, even though strictly speaking, the term norteamericano can equally be used to refer to the inhabitants of any country in North America, it normally applies to the inhabitants of the United States.[g]


Modern Canadians typically refer to people from the United States as Americans, though they seldom refer to the United States as America; they use the terms the United States, the U.S., or (informally) the States instead.[46] Canadians rarely apply the term American to themselves – some Canadians resent either being referred to as Americans because of mistaken assumptions that they are U.S. citizens or others' inability, particularly of those overseas, to distinguish Canadian from American accents.[46] Some Canadians have protested the use of American as a national demonym.[47] People of U.S. ethnic origin in Canada are categorized as "Other North American origins" by Statistics Canada for purposes of census counts (as opposed to "Canadian").[48]

Portugal and Brazil[edit]

Generally, americano denotes "U.S. citizen" in Portugal.[12] Usage of americano to exclusively denote people and things of the U.S. is discouraged by the Lisbon Academy of Sciences, because the specific word estado-unidense (also estadunidense) clearly denotes a person from the United States. The term currently used by the Portuguese press is norte-americano.[citation needed]

In Brazil, the term americano is used to address both that which pertains to the American continent and, in current speech, that which pertains to the U.S.; the particular meaning is deduced from context. Alternatively, the term norte-americano ("North American") is also used in more informal contexts, while estadunidense (of the U.S.) is the preferred form in academia. Use of the three terms is common in schools, government, and media. The term América is used almost exclusively for the continent, and the U.S. is called Estados Unidos ("United States") or Estados Unidos da América ("United States of America"), often abbreviated EUA.[citation needed]

The Getting Through Customs website advises business travelers not to use "in America" as a U.S. reference when conducting business in Brazil.[49]

In other contexts[edit]

"American" in the 1994 Associated Press Stylebook was defined as, "An acceptable description for a resident of the United States. It also may be applied to any resident or citizen of nations in North or South America." Elsewhere, the AP Stylebook indicates that "United States" must "be spelled out when used as a noun. Use U.S. (no space) only as an adjective."[citation needed]

The entry for "America" in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage from 1999 reads:

[the] terms "America", "American(s)" and "Americas" refer not only to the United States, but to all of North America and South America. They may be used in any of their senses, including references to just the United States, if the context is clear. The countries of the Western Hemisphere are collectively 'the Americas'.[citation needed]

Media releases from the Pope and Holy See frequently use "America" to refer to the United States, and "American" to denote something or someone from the United States.[50]

International law[edit]

At least one international law uses U.S. citizen in defining a citizen of the United States rather than American citizen; for example, the English version of the North American Free Trade Agreement includes:

Only air carriers that are "citizens of the United States" may operate aircraft in domestic air service (cabotage) and may provide international scheduled and non-scheduled air service as U.S. air carriers...

Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, a "citizen of the United States" means:

(a) an individual who is a U.S. citizen;
(b) a partnership in which each member is a U.S. citizen; or
(c) a U.S. corporation of which the president and at least two-thirds of the board of directors and other managing officers are U.S. citizens, and at least 75 percent of the voting interest in the corporation is owned or controlled by U.S. citizens.[51]

Many international treaties use the terms American and American citizen:

U.S. commercial regulation[edit]

Products that are labeled, advertised, and marketed in the U.S. as "Made in the USA" must be, as set by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), "all or virtually all made in the U.S." The FTC, to prevent deception of customers and unfair competition, considers an unqualified claim of "American Made" to expressly claim exclusive manufacture in the U.S: "The FTC Act gives the Commission the power to bring law enforcement actions against false or misleading claims that a product is of U.S. origin."[59]


There are a number of alternatives to the demonym American as a citizen of the United States that do not simultaneously mean any inhabitant of the Americas. One uncommon alternative is Usonian, which usually describes a certain style of residential architecture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Other alternatives have also surfaced, but most have fallen into disuse and obscurity. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says:

The list contains (in approximate historical order from 1789 to 1939) such terms as Columbian, Columbard, Fredonian, Frede, Unisian, United Statesian, Colonican, Appalacian, Usian, Washingtonian, Usonian, Uessian, U-S-ian, Uesican, United Stater.[60]

Nevertheless, no alternative to American is common.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Japanese: "U.S. citizen" is amerika-jin (アメリカ人?)[4]
  2. ^ Russian: "U.S. citizen" is amerikanec (американец) for males and amerikanka (американка) for females[5]
  3. ^ The first two definitions in Diccionario de la lengua española (the official dictionary in Spanish) define americano as "Native of America" [Natural de América] and "Pertaining or relating to this part of the world" [Perteneciente o relativo a esta parte del mundo], where América refers to the continent.[15] The fourth definition of americano is defined as "United States person" [estadounidense].
  4. ^ Měiguórén is the standard Mandarin pronunciation.
  5. ^ Chinese: měiguó ("United States") is written as 美国, měizhōu ("America the continent") is written as 美洲, guó ("country") is written as , and zhōu ("continent") is written as .[18][19][20][21]
  6. ^ In Swahili, adding the prefix mwa- to a word indicates a person (wa- would indicate people).[26]
  7. ^ a b [Untranslated] Está muy generalizado, y resulta aceptable, el uso de norteamericano como sinónimo de estadounidense, ya que, aunque en rigor el término norteamericano podría usarse igualmente en alusión a los habitantes de cualquiera de los países de América del Norte o Norteamérica, se aplica corrientemente a los habitantes de los Estados Unidos.


  1. ^ a b c Wilson, Kenneth G. (1993). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 27–28. ISBN 0-231-06989-8.  View at Bartleby
  2. ^ a b Mencken, H. L. (December 1947). "Names for Americans". American Speech 22 (4): 241–256. doi:10.2307/486658. JSTOR 486658. 
  3. ^ Avis, Mattheew H.; Drysdale, Patrick D.; Gregg, Robert J.; Scargill (1983). "American". Gage Canadian Dictionary (pbk ed.). Toronto: Gage Publishing Limited. p. 37. ISBN 0-7715-9122-5.  |first4= missing |last4= in Authors list (help)
  4. ^ "American". WordReference English-Japanese Dictionary. 2013. 
  5. ^ "American". WordReference English-Russian Dictionary. 2013. 
  6. ^ a b "US-Amerikaner". Wortschatz (in German). 
  7. ^ a b c "Etats-Uniens ou Américains, that is the question". Le Monde (in French). July 6, 2007. 
  8. ^ "American". Online English-Japanese Pictorial Dictionary. Free Light Software. 
  9. ^ "statunitense". WordReference English-Italiano Dictionary. 2013. 
  10. ^ Vademecum. Der sprachlich-technische Leitfaden der «Neuen Zürcher Zeitung», 13th edition. Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich 2013, p. 102, s. v. US-amerikanisch.
  11. ^ Eidgenössisches Departement für auswärtige Angelegenheiten: „Liste der Staatenbezeichnungen“; Bundesministerium für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten: „Liste der Staatennamen und deren Ableitungen in den vom Bundesministerium für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten verwendeten Formen“; Auswärtiges Amt: „Verzeichnis der Staatennamen für den amtlichen Gebrauch in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland“
  12. ^ a b "americano". Dicionário Priberam da Língua Portuguesa (in Portuguese). 
  13. ^ a b c "americano". Diccionario de la lengua española (in Spanish). Real Academia Española. 
  14. ^ Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado 1992 edition, look up word Americano: Contains the Observation: Debe evitarse el empleo de americano con el sentido de norteamericano o de los Estados Unidos [Usage of the word with the meaning of U.S. citizen or the United States must be avoided] (in Spanish). 
  15. ^ "América". WordReference English-Spanish Dictionary. 
  16. ^ a b "norteamericano". Diccionario panhispánico de dudas (in Spanish). 
  17. ^ "美国人". WordReference English-Chinese Dictionary. 2013. 
  18. ^ a b "United States". WordReference English-Chinese Dictionary. 2013. 
  19. ^ a b "America". WordReference English-Chinese Dictionary. 2013. 
  20. ^ a b "country". WordReference English-Chinese Dictionary. 2013. 
  21. ^ a b "continent". WordReference English-Chinese Dictionary. 2013. 
  22. ^ "america". WordReference English-Korean Dictionary. 2013. 
  23. ^ "United States". Wasilana & Amana. 
  24. ^ "amerika". Wasilana & Amana. 
  25. ^ "American". Wasilana & Amana. 
  26. ^ Youngman, Jeremy. "Introduction to Swahili". Masai Mara. 
  27. ^ "Ameriko". Esperanto–English Dictionary. 
  28. ^ "Usono". Esperanto–English Dictionary. 
  29. ^ "usonano". Esperanto–English Dictionary. 
  30. ^ (Esperanto) "Reta Vortaro" [Internet Dictionary]. 
  31. ^ a b c d (subscription required) "American". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 27, 2008. 
  32. ^ "Declaration of Independence". National Archives. July 4, 1776. 
  33. ^ Madison, James. "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments". The Federalist (51). 
  34. ^ Hamilton, Alexander. "The Executive Department Further Considered". The Federalist (70). 
  35. ^ Hamilton, Alexander. "The Powers Necessary to the Common Defense Further Considered". The Federalist Papers (24). 
  36. ^ Washington, George (1796). "Washington's Farewell Address". 
  37. ^ "The Barbary Treaties: Treaty of Peace and Amity". 
  38. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin (November 24, 2005). "Life in These, uh, This United States". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Archived from the original on February 20, 2008. Retrieved February 22, 2008. 
  39. ^ Bastin, Georges L. Bastin; Castrillón, Elvia R. (2004). "La "Carta dirigida a los españoles americanos", una carta que recorrió muchos caminos.." [The "Letter directed to Spanish Americans", a letter that traversed many paths...]. Hermeneus (in Spanish) (6): 276–290. Archived from the original on January 27, 2010. 
  40. ^ The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. "Articles of Faith 1:10". We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent... 
  41. ^ Knight, Kevin. "America". Catholic Encyclopedia. 
  42. ^ "Financial Reform Recommendations to General Assembly". United Nations. March 26, 2009. 
  43. ^ "American Samoa". United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. Retrieved August 6, 2009. 
  44. ^ "estadounidense". Diccionario de la lengua española (in Spanish). Real Academia Española. [Translated:] 1. adj. Native of the United States of America  [Original:] "1. adj. Natural de los Estados Unidos de América."
  45. ^ "americano". Diccionario usual (in Spanish) (21st ed.). Real Academia Española. 1992. p. 89.  To access, click the magnifying glass in the upper left-hand corner. In the field titled "Lema", type "americano"; for the "Resultados" radio buttons, select "Diccionario"; in the field in the selection field for "Diccionarios", make sure that "1992 Academica Usual" is selected. Then click "Buscar".
  46. ^ a b Fee, Margery; McAlpine, J. (1997). Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage. Toronto: Oxford University Press. p. 36. ISBN 0-19-541619-8. 
  47. ^ de Ford, Miriam Allen (April 1927). "On the difficulty of indicating nativity in the United States". American Speech: 315. 
  48. ^ "Population by selected ethnic origins, by province and territory (2006 Census)". Statistics Canada. 
  49. ^ Morrison, Terri. "Doing business abroad – Brazil". 
  50. ^ Pope Paul VI (October 4, 1965). Homily of the Holy Father Paul VI (Speech). Yankee Stadium, New York. 
  51. ^ "Annex I: Reservations for Existing Measures and Liberalization Commitments (Chapters 11, 12, and 14)". North American Free Trade Agreement. October 7, 1992. 
  52. ^ "Treaty between US and the Dey and Regency of Algiers, March 7, 1796". Gilder Lehrman Collection Documents. PBS. 
  53. ^ "The Louisiana Purchase Treaty". Archives of The West. PBS. 
  54. ^ "Treaty with The Cheyenne Tribe". July 6, 1825. 
  55. ^ "The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo". La Prensa. 
  56. ^ "The Treaty of Amity and Commerce Between the United States and Japan, 1858 (The Harris Treaty)". 
  57. ^ "Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain; December 10, 1898". 
  58. ^ "The United States–Thailand Treaty of Amity". Thailand Business and Legal Guide. 
  59. ^ "Complying with the Made In the USA Standard". Federal Trade Commission. Archived from the original on February 16, 2006. 
  60. ^ Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster. 1994. p. 88. 

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]