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",[1] 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 or America in general.[2] Other languages, including French, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian, use cognates of "American" to refer to people from the United States, but others, particularly Spanish, primarily use terms derived from "United States". There are various other local and colloquial names for Americans.

Development of the term "American"

The adjective "American" originally referred to the landmass known as the Americas or America. "Americans" originally referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and later to European settlers and their descendants.[1] 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.[1] "American" especially applied to people in British America, and thus its use as a demonym for the United States derives by extension.[1]

The United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 refers to "the thirteen united States of America",[3] 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.[4] 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,[5] i.e. land outside of the United States, while Federalist Papers 51[6] and 70[7] 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",[8] 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.[9] Eventually, this usage spread through other English-speaking countries; the unqualified noun "American" now chiefly refers to natives or citizens of the United States in all forms of the English language. Although "American" may refer to all inhabitants of the continents, this is generally specified with a qualifier such as "Latin American" or "North American."[1]

International use

International speakers of English refer to people from the United States as "Americans", while cognates of "American" are used in many other languages. French, German, Dutch, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian speakers use cognates of American (Japanese: アメリカ人 rōmaji: amerika-jin), (Russian: американец, американка), (Mandarin Chinese: pinyin- měiguórén, traditional- 美國人, simplified- 美国人) to refer to U.S. citizens. Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese use terms derived from Estados Unidos, the cognate of "United States" – estadounidense and estadunidense, respectively. Although the term estadunidense is growing in usage, in Brazil americano is still said to describe native Americans. These languages, especially European Portuguese, also use translations of North American: norteamericano and norte-americano. The same linguistic ambiguity that occurs in English use of the term "American" occurs in the other European languages: to compensate for this, French (predominantly Quebec French[10]) and Italian speakers may refer to U.S. citizens respectively as États-unien and statunitense, though this is less common. German speakers may distinguish between "American" and "US-American" (German: Amerikaner and US-Amerikaner, pronounced [uːɛsʔameʀiˈkaːnɐ]). This confusion is also present in Portuguese, as people from the United States may alternatively be referred to as americanos in that language.[11] However, in Spanish, americano chiefly refers to all people from the Western Hemisphere,[12] and using it in the United States sense may be considered offensive;[13] the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas de la Real Academia Española recommends instead "estadounidense".[14]

Alternative terms

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.[15] "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.[16] The earliest recorded use in this context is in a 1784 letter by Horatio Nelson.[16] The word "gringo", often used pejoratively, is common in Spanish and has entered into other languages including English, in which language it is recorded as early as 1871.[17][18] The pejorative term "seppo" (from rhyming slang, septic tank = yank), originally mainly used in Australia, is also gaining in currency in the English-speaking world. More generically, they may be specified as "U.S. Americans".[19] Several single-word English alternatives for "American" have been suggested over time, including "Usonian", popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright,[20] and the nonce term "United-Statesian".[21] 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."[22] Nevertheless no alternative to "American" is common.[15]

Spanish and Portuguese speakers may refer to people from the United States as norteamericanos and norte-americanos respectively ("North Americans"), though these terms can refer to Canadians and sometimes Mexicans. The Real Academia Española discourages the use of americano or americana for U.S. citizen, and recommends the use of estadounidense.[23] Many Latin Americans object to the use of the term "Americans" to refer to the citizens of the United States of America, finding it to be an appropriation of the collective pan-continental identity. However, this usage has historical roots.[24] Other languages which optionally distinguish the two uses include Japanese, French, Finnish, Italian, and Navajo. Other languages, such as Chinese, Korean, Swahili, Vietnamese, and Esperanto, have different terms for U.S. citizens and people from the Americas.

See also

  • List of demonyms for U.S. states


  1. ^ a b c d e "American". From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 10, 2008.
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, p. 87. Retrieved November 28, 2008.
  3. ^ "The Charters of Freedom". National Archives. Retrieved 2007-06-20. 
  4. ^ Articles of Confederation, Article 1. Available at the Library of Congress' American Memory.
  5. ^ Alexander Hamilton. "The Federalist no. 24". 
  6. ^ James Madison. "The Federalist no. 51". 
  7. ^ Alexander Hamilton. "The Federalist no. 70". 
  8. ^ "The Barbary Treaties: Treaty of Peace and Amity". 
  9. ^ "Washington's Farewell Address 1796". From The Avalon Project. Retrieved November 10, 2008.
  10. ^ Berankova, Eva (May 20, 2007). "Quelle littérature pour le Quebec?". Sens Publique. Retrieved 2009-05-06. 
  11. ^ "O que é americano". Retrieved 2010-06-15. ; see also pt:Estados Unidos
  12. ^ Americano RAE. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  13. ^ (Spanish) "Pero debe evitarse el empleo de americano para referirse exclusivamente a los habitantes de los Estados Unidos, uso abusivo que se explica por el hecho de que los estadounidenses utilizan a menudo el nombre abreviado América (en inglés, sin tilde) para referirse a su país. No debe olvidarse que América es el nombre de todo el continente y son americanos todos los que lo habitan." Unidos Estados Unidos (4) RAE. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  14. ^ (Spanish) "El gentilicio recomendado, por ser el de uso mayoritario, es estadounidense" Unidos Estados Unidos (3) RAE. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  15. ^ a b Wilson, Kenneth G. (1993). "American, America". From The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Retrieved April 27, 2009.
  16. ^ a b "Yankee". From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 27, 2008.
  17. ^ . "Gringo". From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 27, 2008.
  18. ^ "Gringo". From Retrieved April 27, 2009.
  19. ^ The standard dictionary of facts, Henry Woldmar Ruoff, Frontier press company, Buffalo (1919, entry for Robert Lansing)
    World Metric Standardization, Aubrey Drury (1922:455ff)
    ALA Membership Directory, American Library Association (1955:304)
    Monopoly law and market: studies of EC competition law with US American antitrust law as a frame of reference and supported by basic market economics, Jens Fejø (1990)
    A Dictionary of European Anglicisms, Manfred Görlach (2005, entry for "Yankee")
    Transcultural women of late twentieth-century U.S. American literature, Pauline T. Newton (2005)
    On the margins: US Americans in a border town to Mexico, Johannes Wilm (2006)
  20. ^ The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1999:1580) gives the first meaning of the noun "Usonian" as "a native or inhabitant of the United States".
  21. ^ "United States". From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved May 4, 2009.
  22. ^ Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994:88). First published in the December 1947 issue of American Speech.
  23. ^ Page at the Real Academia Española about U.S. citizens
  24. ^ Santos, Luis Claudio (March 2006). "American, United Statian, USAmerican, or Gringos?". AmeriQuests 2 (1). Retrieved on 2009-05-04. 


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