Laura has noticed that this isn't just a British thing, but the student, probably with less travel(l)ing experience, considered it to be BrE--and we can investigate that idea. Others seem to think it's an exchange student thing. I found this claim in a review (warning: .pdf) of Stuff White People Like:I worked in London for a few months last year and was surprised to hear everyone referring to the U.S. as 'the States' or 'America', both names I rarely (if ever) use. Normally I just say 'the U.S.' or even the full(er) name of 'the United States'. I did a sort of poll on this in a Livejournal community I am a part of, here at Brits-Americans. On the whole, people agreed with me that Americans do not call our country 'the States' (a few more call it 'America' though) and if they do, it is generally only after visiting/living in Britain (or a country outside the U.S., even Canada).
Incidentally, every American exchange student is required by the Geneva Convention to use the term, “The States,” preferably whilst rolling his or her eyes. I did it so effectively that I developed minor eyestrain.)The obvious reason why Americans only start calling the country America or the States when they're abroad is that an American just doesn't have as much reason to call it anything when in the US--for instance, when someone asks an American where they're from when they're in the US, they'll answer Kansas or Cincinnati, not the US of A or any such thing.
But is it used more in the UK than elsewhere? It's a bit hard to tell, but let's start by looking at where on the web some names for the US are used. Apologies for my primitive skills with html tables, but what I've done is to search for America, the States, the US, the USA, and the United States on the web in two sentential contexts in and out of the UK. First, I searched "are you from x" with the proviso that it should not include any sites that had the phrase "Where are you from"--because otherwise you're flooded with examples like Where are you from? The US. This was important because my aim here was to find uses of these names for the US that were more likely to be written by non-Americans. For the Americans, I searched for "I'm from X". The table shows the total number for the "are you from" searches, followed by the results from just the UK, followed by the proportion of world uses of a term that come from the UK, followed by UK-based writers' preference for the term--and then it repeats that for the "I'm from" searches. So, we can see here that presumed non-Americans in the UK tend to call the country (in web-based writing, at least) the US or the USA. If it were a Briticism, we'd expect UK uses in the Are you from context to be a fairly big proportion of the world uses--but that doesn't seem to be the case. The confounding factor would be if it were British, but the British considered it degrading, in which case they might use it in other contexts, but not the Are you from one.
|Are you from [x]||UK||UK/World||UK%||I'm from [x]||UK||UK/World||UK %|
|the United States||1270||6||4%||4%||23,200||842||4%||13%|
Before looking at the American side of the table, let's consider whether it is degrading. Ben Zimmer has kindly pointed out to me this claim by 'Areff' on alt.usage.english:
[in response to someone's usage of the States] First off, you get Oy!ed for using that expression 'the States'. This is a deprecated usage outside of military and diplomatic contexts. Odd thing is, the British think Americans commonly use 'the States' (they don't), and the Americans think the British commonly use 'the States' (they do, but only because they mistakenly think that's what Americans commonly do).A lot of people on that discussion board took issue with this claim. I've certainly never found 'the States' to be deprecating (which is all I can imagine he meant by 'deprecated'), and would think that non-diplomatic contexts would be less sensitive to such connotations in any case. But at any rate, our evidence here is that Americans in the UK use the term at a much higher rate than the British do--since it's only the 4th most common on the British side of the table, but the second most common way for Americans to refer to their home country. So I have a hard time buying that Americans in the UK are learning it from the British.
Now on to the American side of the table, we see that on UK websites Americans use 'the States' one-fifth of the time when asked where they're from, but this accounts only for 6% of the world total of people saying they're 'from the States'. But that 6% is bigger than the percentages for any of the other expressions, so perhaps it is a bit more likely in the UK.
For interest, I also checked some other anglophonic countries' sites. The numbers were very small in some cases, but I'll present here the rankings of the terms in Australian, Canadian and South African sites. The figure on the left is the ranking of the 'Are you from' result and the figure on the right is the 'I'm from' version.
|the United States||=4/2||5/5||=4/4||5/4|
If Americans do say the States more often in the UK than elsewhere, one of my hypotheses is that it has something to do with language. When I lived in South Africa, I was conscious of referring to the US as America when I was speaking to someone whose native language was not English. One knows that America can be understood by speakers of most languages, but you need more of a grip on English to understand that the States is used as a proper noun. So, it's easier to use it with the (native) BrE speakers than with people who are speaking English as a second language. I also liked saying the States because the US comes out as 'theeyuwess', which sounds pretty mushy coming out of my mouth, and so I found myself having to repeat myself when I said it in South Africa. (The USA just sounds too [AmE] yee-haw jingoistic somehow.)
But why not in Australia? An English friend has wondered whether in the UK the States has an echo of the Colonies. Maaaayybeeeee. I'm preferring a more pragmatic solution. Larry Horn has a principle I like called 'Familiarity breeds CNTNT'--that is, familiarity breeds reduced content; the more familiar something is, the more economical you can be in referring to it. Maybe the States is more common in Canada and the UK because people there have more interaction with Americans and America than Australians and South Africans have.
But in conclusion, from this not-very-scientific investigation, it looks like the people who are most likely to say the States are Americans talking to Canadians or the British. Do we learn it from the British? Do we learn it from each other? Is it an echo of the Colonies? Hard to tell...