Friday, July 10, 2015

The Problematic Nature of the Word "American"

During last week's Fourth of July celebrations in the United States, I saw something very interesting on the internet: someone wishing their "fellow USians" a happy Independence Day. The use of this incredibly awkward-sounding term led me to start thinking about why they used it, which I can only imagine is due to the problematic nature of using the word "American" to refer to people from the United States.

While many people in the United States have never stopped to think about it, our use of the term "American" as our traditional demonym was probably not the most culturally sensitive choice. Why, you ask? Well, that would be because the "America" in "United States of America" refers to the Western Hemisphere where our country is located, which is also known as America or the Americas since it includes the continents of North America and South America.

Columbia, the personification of the U.S.,
in a patriotic poster from the early 1900s.
This means that technically, every single person from the northernmost point in Canada to the southernmost point in Chile is an American. While our friendly English-speaking neighbors to the north don't seem to mind our appropriation of the term for our own personal use, Spanish speakers throughout the many countries to the south are not always of the same opinion.

In fact, if you've ever studied Spanish or visited a Spanish-speaking country, you might have been surprised to learn that the Spanish demonym for someone from the United States is estadounidense, which rolls off of the tongue so much more nicely than "United Statesan" ever could. In Spain, for example, if you say that you're americano or americana, you might be asked what country you're from, since those terms are generally applied to anyone from the Americas. The Real Academia Española, the official language institution of Spain, even suggests that use of the term americano to refer to people from the United States should be avoided. (If you know Spanish, you might enjoy reading their entire opinion on the topic.)

Throughout most of the rest of the world however, the terms used to refer to people from the United States are often cognates of the word "American", such as américain in French and Amerikaner in German. They may have chosen these terms because it was easier than trying to create a nice-sounding demonym from their translation of "United States", but they also probably didn't care much about using it to refer only to people from the U.S. since most of their speakers don't live in the Americas, and therefore couldn't be upset by it.

With that said, while I do think it is incredibly unfortunate that the United States has been using a culturally insensitive term to refer to its people since the late 1700s, I don't think there's much we can do to change it now. People have tried to popularize alternative terms for centuries, but they've never caught on. They include Usonian, the aforementioned USian, Washingtonian, and worst of all Columbian, based on the poetic name for the United States, because what the world really needed was confusion as to whether they're referring to people from the United States or Colombia.

In the end, I think that all we can do is accept the mistake that was made centuries ago and try our best not to offend the millions of other Americans throughout our hemisphere. When visiting other countries in the Americas, it shouldn't be too hard to use estadounidense instead of americano or to simply say that we're "from the United States" instead of using the word "American".