American Demonym: Why Do US Citizens Call Themselves Americans?
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  • Post published:27/05/2021
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I’ve come across this debate dozens of times in my day-to-day life, and I did once again the other evening as I was out with my friends. I have a very international group of friends, and it is always interesting to argue with them; I am always anticipating some kind of new angle they’d offer up that I hadn’t considered.

However, this time, I surprised myself and my friends by spewing forth some soliloquy without even taking any proper time to ponder the question again; words came out of my mouth without hesitation and one would think that I had been waiting all my life for this one moment, to fight this one battle. My friend said something about Canadians being Americans, as well, and after I clarified that we were going in that direction, I just went off with a rant, one I had no idea I had in me.

I myself am a United States citizen, but my point of view on this article hopefully reflects no bias regarding that fact. For the record, I want to point out that, even though I am a citizen of the United States, I often find myself being the most critical of my own country – my friends and conversation partners while abroad are certain to agree; I am usually the most progressive, rainbow-slinging in just about any group I happen to be in.

So, is the fact that U.S. citizens call themselves “Americans” a case of ignorance, simple-mindedness, a narrow worldview, or bigotry? I don’t think so at all, and below I’ll explain why. We “Americans” have many faults, but I’d like to explain why this one is not one of them.

America Refers to the Continent(s) or the U.S.A.? A Bit of History to Get Us Started….

Originally, yes, the term America was used to denote anything from the Americas, which consists of North America and South America. In the 1500’s the term American was used to represent the native inhabitants of the lands of the New World. However, in the English language, American came to refer specifically to the peoples of British America, and later narrowed down more to include just the newly-formed country of the United States of America – and note that this happened in the late 1700’s. The British were the first ones to call citizens of the USA “Americans.”

Since most of the world agrees on a seven-continent view of the world, it is important to remember that we also distinguish a person from South America as South American and a person from North America as North American, more commonly than simply American.

Point #1: The Dictionary Definition

Oxford English – (#1) of, relating to, or characteristic of the United States or its inhabitants.
Merriam-Webster – (#3) a citizen of the United States.
Collins Dictionary – (#2) of, in, or characteristic of the U.S. or its people or culture.

Most dictionaries, international organizations, and style books have a doubly-accepted definition for the moniker of American – both as a citizen of the United States of America as well as a person from North America or South America.

Point #2: Mexico

What does Mexico have to do with this argument? Well, many people don’t realize this, but Mexico’s official name is Estados Unidos Mexicanos, which translates to United States of Mexico or the United Mexican States. This invalidates one of the most common alternate suggestions for demonyms of US citizens, United Statian, since Mexico is also a country of many states, united. The term Mexico doesn’t step on any toes, so there is no argument for that country/demonym pair as there is with the USA.

Point #3: Korea

This point is not such a solid one, but I’d like to point out that North Korean and South Korean citizens prefer to be considered singularly as “Koreans,” since they share their same background, language, and much history, among other things, though they each still fail to officially recognize the existence of the other nationality.

Point #4: Other Languages/Cognates

A cognate is a word in another language that has a similar etymology/origin as the word in question. For example, the word night in English has similar-sounding cognates in many languages, because they all come from the same Indo-European parent root. In French, it is nuit, in German, nacht, and in Spanish, noche; I am sure you can see the similarities.

The point I am trying to make here is that Americans are not the only ones to call themselves such. Here are the cognates of the American demonym in some other languages:

Polish – Amerykański
German – Amerikanischen/Amerikaner
French – Américaine
Italian – Americano

As you can see, it is not only the people of the US that call themselves such, so most arguments of American imperialism or small-mindedness is somewhat invalidated. In fact, the United Nations recognizes that the term American refers to the people of the United States. Canadians even refer to their southern neighbor’s form of the English language as American English to differentiate it from their own self-described Canadian English. There are many other cognates in other languages, in addition to these obvious ones.

Point #5: Time

As the world knocks out political incorrectness left and right, there needs to be something else to fill the void, it seems. This American moniker dispute has really picked up some momentum in the last decade, especially. However, it is important to note that the definition of American has virtually remained the same in the English language for over two centuries now. As stated previously, the British are the ones that first started calling citizens of the USA as “Americans,” and this has now stuck for over two hundred years.

Point #6: Name Logic

Rather simply put, there are not any other countries (that come to mind, at least) that have the word America within their official name as does the United States of America. There is much less fault to be found in the full name of the USA, but it is the demonym that draws ire in others. Also, if you were to think about it, the “United States” portion of USA is merely a descriptor phrase that ties it all together, much like “Republic of So and So” or the “Federated Islands of Such and Such.”

The more arrogant thing to do, in my opinion, would be to take that first descriptor portion and fashion that into a demonym. Can you imagine if a nation were to claim the term “Republic” or “Federated Islands” and turn that into their demonym, disregarding every other one of such kinds?

Point #7: Nothing Else Really Suffices

Not only has the term “American” stood the test of time and become an internationally-recognized demonym for citizens of the United States of America, but there just isn’t much else that works. The name of the country is United States of America. Like with the Mexican example, the citizens of the United States of America are “Americans” just like the citizens of the United States of Mexico are “Mexicans.”

The term “Yankee” has been proposed, and many people of other countries still refer to citizens of the USA as “Yankees,” but in the US of A, a yankee refers more specifically to the people of New England, or the Northeast of the country.

Other proposed demonyms have been based on the United States portion of the country name, which, again, has its own problems. The demonym American exists, literally, for lack of a better term.

Point #8: Other Examples Exist of Somewhat Vague Demonyms

Central African Republic – The most common demonym for this African country is simply Central African, but you can understand how that might cause confusion, since there are many nations that could be considered so.
Congo – The term Congolese is used to describe the people of both the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two countries that make it all the more difficult by being adjacent.
China – The People’s Republic of China is what we refer to when we say China, yet the Republic of China seems to unfairly have to use their moniker of Taiwan.

Point #9: Uniqueness and Geography

Official names of countries are usually several words longer than their more everyday name, and this leads, in most cases to the demonym forming from either the most unique part of the name, or else from the most specific geographically. As aforementioned in Point #6, logic holds that we wouldn’t name the people of the Republic of So and So as Republicans, or something to that effect.

Thus, when demonyms are decided, it is usually from the most unique part of the full official name, such as the Mexico example, or else it is with the geographical component to their name, as in the case of South Africa or Central Africa. The unique part of the United States of America is America, so it became the root of the demonym; there’s no other country with that word within its name.

The Main Parties Offended

Calling a citizen of the United States of America has offended many people throughout the world. First and foremost, the Spanish-speaking people of North and South America use their cognate of American, Americano, to refer to the people and products of the two continents, as opposed to the people and products of the United States. They are somewhat justified in feeling slighted, I admit, since these Latin American peoples are also of “the Americas.” In fact, they’ve given other words to denote citizens of the USA in particular, such as estadounidense (from United States); but you can see how this might cause a problem with Mexicans.

Aside from Spanish-speaking (and the Portuguese-speaking, to some extent) peoples, many people are offended by this supposed blasphemy as they see the United States and its people as arrogant and narcissistic, taking a name for themselves that is more universal. The US of A gets a bad reputation as it is probably one of the most-hated countries universally, and thus people are overly critical of every apparent or alleged fault the USA might have.

Conclusion

“American” is the only official and recognized demonym that most countries use for citizens of the United States, and the only one the United States citizens use; most dictionaries (outside of many Spanish language ones) and the United Nations recognize this as the official demonym. The pope and the Holy See even use that term to specifically describe people of the USA.

Some US citizens feel guilty and have come up with some alternative demonyms, such as the aforementioned United Statian, but these are just grasps at nothing solid. Furthermore, the term was not picked by citizens of the USA to begin with, but rather the USA’s mother country/national enemy at the time, Great Britain, and so this should not be an example of American ignorance or arrogance. There are many reasons to be angry at the USA, and the United States of America certainly has an overabundance of faults, but this is not one of them.

* For further reading, check out this post giving a definition of demonyms and a list of demonyms by country »

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