Wednesday, July 16, 2014

America and Americans (p.s. England, Britain & UK!)

Here's an argument that doesn't fit well in 140 characters, but I'm constantly being confronted with it on Twitter (and in real life), so I hope you'll excuse me getting it out of my system so that I can just send people a link from now on.

This is the kind of thing I get:

I suggest you stop calling yourselves American. It is arrogant of people from the United States to call themselves Americans because America is a whole continent. They should be called [insert long-winded or whimsical epithet here].

So, let's break that argument down...

I suggest... It is arrogant...
Individuals from the USA call themselves American because that's the word we have. They typically don't have an imperialist agenda intent on taking over or obliterating other people in the western hemisphere, they're (we're) just using the word that's at hand. But let's unpack this a bit more.

Let's say I meet a young man named Tom Jones. Would it be appropriate for me to say to him "It is arrogant of you to call yourself Tom Jones because there's another one who's older and a much better singer than you!"?  Or "How arrogant of your parents to name you Tom Jones when there already was one!"?

That is, you're telling people from another country what to call themselves, and you think they're the arrogant ones?

America is a whole continent
On the model of continents generally taught in English-speaking nations, America is two continents: North America and South America.  In today's English, these are typically referred to collectively as the Americas. (And loosely, the term Western Hemisphere is sometimes used to refer to the same set of continents, though technically parts of Europe are in that hemisphere too.) There are some contexts in which American is used to refer to people/things from the Americas, as in the Organization of American States--but even they use the plural when referring to the continents: "Today, the OAS brings together all 35 independent states of the Americas" on their English site and (interestingly--is this just because of translation from English?) similar plurals on the Spanish, Portuguese and French pages.

All this is based on the seven-continent model that is generally used in the English-speaking world (and some other places too), but other models are taught in other countries. Another more geologically motivated six-continent model joins Europe and Asia into Eurasia, but still holds North America and South America to be different because they are on different tectonic plates.  The use of models that are more regional, perhaps, than geological, probably accounts for why it's often people from other European countries who write to me to complain about my use of America. (I had wondered why they had so much invested in it.) Wikipedia clarifies:
North America and South America are treated as separate continents in the seven-continent model. However, they may also be viewed as a single continent known as America. This viewpoint was common in the United States until World War II, and remains prevalent in some Asian six-continent models. This remains the more common vision in Latin American countries, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece, where they are taught as a single continent. From the 19th century some people used the term "Americas" to avoid ambiguity with the United States of America.

If the word refers to continent(s), it can't also refer to a country
Most words have more than one meaning. For instance day can mean a 24-hour period or the part of that 24-hour period when the sun is up. We don't insist that people use it in only one way, because it rarely causes us trouble and when there is trouble we have ways around it. Similarly, thinking of other place names, there are two New Yorks, a state and a city. When it matters, we distinguish between them. When it doesn't, we don't. Upstaters like me sometimes get annoyed when people say New York to mean the city and not the state, but we mostly get over it.

(When I travel, and people ask where I'm from, I say New York. They believe city; I mean state.  They don't mess with me; I don't make them listen to a geography lesson. No one suffers.)

So while there's nothing wrong with America or American having more than one meaning, we should acknowledge the fact that it has a dominant meaning, associated with a particular country. (And there are good reasons why that's the dominant meaning. We need to talk about the country more often than we need to talk about the two continents together, at least in English. And also, it's the name of the country--see below.)

Thus, the following uses of America/n are weird in English:

A: I went to America last summer.
B: Oh really? Where?
A: Venezuela.
B: ??
Brazil has a population of over 200 million people, almost all of them American.

People from the USA should be called...
This statement is usually concluded with something that no one knows how to pronounce, like USan or USAn or States(i)an or something. More importantly, it's a word or phrase that no one uses, so it'll be hard for anyone to understand your meaning if you start using it to avoid using American. On Twitter, because I need to pack a lot of meaning into a few characters, I do use the abbreviations USer and UKer, which I say in my head as 'you-ESS-er' and 'you-KAY-yer', but I have yet to say them outside my head. (And I sometimes get a little grief for it on Twitter.) I'm more tempted by UKer because of the geographical problems presented by British (see below).

The problem with all this is...
that the name of the country is America to the same extent that the name of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is Luxembourg and the name of the Republic of South Africa is South Africa. That is, official country names are generally the country's name + some description of the political organi{z/s}ation of the country. The description usually (in the English renderings of the name) precedes the country name, so I'll call it a 'prefix'. 

The US and the UK are a bit odd in that the prefixes to the country names are commonly used as names for the countries. So we hardly ever refer to Egypt as the Arab Republic of Egypt and we never refer to it just as the Arab Republic; we call it Egypt. But we do that kind of prefix-only reference to the United States and the United Kingdom. If anything's not fair, I'm going to say it's that. Mexico is also a United States. And United Kingdom is just plain sexist. But we'll muddle through because people understand what we mean when we use those terms (and the UK's proper name is just too much of a mouthful).

(I won't go into the States because I've blogged about that already.)

So I've gone (BrE) off piste in that this is not a US-UK difference. It's not even a bit of American usage that I hear British complaints about. (In fact,  Americans chastise me about it more than Brits do.) I could have just sent you to this Slate post about the same kind of thing. But thank you for letting me get it off my chest. 

P.S.  I'm sure someone would like to point out American misuse of England, British, etc. I'll just pause first to say: there are an awful lot of misuses of British and English in the UK as well and certainly a lot of misuses from countries other than America too. It's complicated. When these issues come up, I send folks to this video:


David Crosbie said...

I fear you may have prepared a dossier for people who do not choose to have their insights clouded by facts.

If semantics is dictated by first principles and by what words ought to mean, then all observations to the contrary are evidence of decay, indolence and sloppy thinking.

They'll continue to feel superior to you because their view is based on pure logic. America was coined to denote all that was as yet known of the the Western Continent. Once geographers had determined the extent of that entity — viz the continents of North and South America — nobody has the moral right to reassign the label to something more useful, more informative, more discriminating, more politically relevant.

The name America was coined to denote the whole shebang, and words can't possibly change their meaning, can they?

Eloise said...

Can I tentatively extend the hypothesis that us Brits (and I disagree with CGP Grey - as a proud Welsh woman, I'm happier to be called Welsh than British. But I'll accept British. Calling me English is more or less fighting talking. At least metaphorically.) are more comfortable with ambiguous words than our transatlantic nearly-the-same-language-speaking ex-colonials.

Of course there are a lot of exceptions but most Brits know and accept ambiguity and possibly even embrace it. A lot of Americans (in my experience) seem to demand precision and hate such ambiguity and will thus complain about such usage as you've highlighted here.

Although not quite the same, I remember an American academic who swapped coasts. On one coast they issued a notice that 'students were here to learn and electronic communication was banned during lectures and seminars.' (Fat chance these days when the students are likely to be taking notes on tablets and so on.) On the other coast the same notice was given and met with outrage when an early tablet was removed - previous notices had mentioned phones and laptops, but tablets weren't either of those and so ought to be OK. The administration agreed with the student, and then updated their guidelines to specifically ban tablets as well.

Well I think that particular bird has long since flown, I really think in the UK, you'd never have had the argument. You might have had the argument that the laptop/tablet was an essential note-taking device and, indeed that is the accepted state-of-play now, but before that change, "it's not a phone and not a laptop so it's OK" just wouldn't have been tried because the ban would clearly have applied.

n0aaa said...

I'll answer to 'Yankee' if only because my name is Jan (diminutive 'Janke", no?) and I am of largely Dutch descent. I think 'American' is overwhelmingly conceded to be the US. Canadians and Mexicans prefer those terms, and South Americans don't identify with the overall rubric.

vp said...

1. "United Kingdom" might (theoretically) refer to the historical United Kingdom of the Netherlands, or the historical United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves

2. "Britain" might (theoretically) refer to Britanny in France (historically known as "Little Britain").

These objections have the same degree of force, in my opinion, as those against the use of "America" or "American" to refer to the United States of America (where the context is clear).

Irene C said...

I'd have to counter Eloise's tentative hypothesis with more precise evidence, but by and large in my experience with this issue on Quora the objection to the use of "America" as applied to the land of the Yanquis comes in the general form of variations on "Why do the citizens of the USA insist on calling their country 'America' when 'America' is two continents?"

In other words, by far the majority of people asking the question are ... Latin Americans. Each nationality of which has its own demonym that until fairly recently they seemed to be alright with.

I have only seen citizens of the USA sort of chime in, ("Yeah, I don't know why we do that, haha") hoping to be accepted by the folks south of the border between the USA and Mexico.

Most Americans -- the vast majority, I'd wager -- have no problem with the status quo. It's the transatlantic ex-colonials of Spain (and maybe Portugal) who "can't handle the ambiguity". And really, they simply seem to want to re-appropriate the terms.

Which were used, ahem, more than 238 years ago, and not just by denizens on the west side of the Atlantic. Yet the question is always asked as though this "appropriation" occurred sui generis and as though we west pondians are the only ones who use the terms in this way.

Alison Can Read said...

I didn't realize "off piste" is a BrE term. As a fencer, I just figured it was just a saying meaning "off base" or "off the designated fencing strip."

It seems to me more like a class based saying, since typically fencing is most prominent at British public schools and U.S. east coast private schools. (as opposed to where I learned it in rural Montana)

Do you have more information about the use of that phrase? I've heard it here and there, but the only thing I can specifically remember is in the Sherlock episode "Sign of Three."

vp said...

I find it rather charming that Mexican Spanish speakers insist on using "estadounidense" to refer to the USA, given that the official name of Mexico is "Estados Unidos Mexicanos".

lynneguist said...

@Alison Can Read:
'Off piste' is generally known as a skiing term--that's the metaphor in most BrE use. (See the link to Oxford dictionaries in the post.)

@Lots of other people
The fact that people in romance-language-speaking countries (not just New World ones) are generally learning that there are 6 continents, one of them America, does mean that for them there's more of an ambiguity for them in their languages than there is in English. Until I started researching this, I had no idea that not everyone in the world used the seven-continent model. So their protests make more sense to me now. It still doesn't mean anyone should go around demanding that people in other countries should change their language to fit others' worldview, but I'm a bit more sympathetic and can point out the differences more confidently now. The whole thing drives home a point about exercising humility when talking about others' cultures and languages.

lynneguist said...

(Too many 'for them's there! Wish comments were editable...)

John Cowan said...

People who complain about American(s) often compare it to the objections people raise to names for their people they consider insulting. I reply that there's a great difference between exonyms and endonyms, between "Your name for my people is insulting, please don't use it" and "Your name for your people is insulting, please don't use it."

Nick said...

I suggest that we start alphabetising it as "America, United States of".

Nick said...

'They typically don't have an imperialist agenda intent on taking over or obliterating other people in the western hemisphere...'
"Typically don't" is doing a lot of work here. Way to gloss over the Monroe Doctrine!

lynneguist said...

Nick, The 'they' I'm talking about is individuals referring to themselves, not foreign policy.

Anonymous said...

Off Piste became widespread in British English with yj popularity of skiing holidays. Off Piste being the term used for skiing outside of groomed runs (or pistes). It is still most often heard in skiing context but has spread to other contexts.

It is slightly class based in that skiing is a sport for the more affluent but wouldn't necessarily indicate a public school background.

Colleen said...

When I'm traveling and people ask me where I'm from, this is why I say "Florida."

If I say "America" (or "the U.S."), they're just going to ask me to be more specific anyway.

Autolycus said...

To be totally off piste, the Guardian once published a brief item about the retirement of a skiing champion under the headline "Piste off".

Witchmedow said...

Pedantic...used by my about all the ancentral make-up to use to up) often to discuss people who get overly tied up in the details. My words...common usage.

...and let's stop arguing lol

Thank you Lynne for this as I too have experiences where people go on about such things. I typically look at them and say (again my husband's words) "Fair enough" and move on...some people can just be .... pedantic. And honestly some people need to focus on the trivial.

Let's all go listen to Tom Jones, whichever one he may be...and get on with it. ;)

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I have, however, been asked to change "American" to "North American" and or "America" to "North America" by Canadian friends who said that what I was saying applied to them, too. Needless to say, I can't now think of an example.....

My husband, who is from Northern Ireland, is always faintly offended when he is competing for "GB" - as he says, Northern Ireland is not actually part of Great Britain! "Why can't they call it UK?" he asks, plaintively!

Rina said...

Thank you for this lucid expose of the matter. You do always write lucidly, and it's great to see this particular issue discussed with such clarity -- and vigor! More ammo: when people say someone is anti-American, do they mean the person has an animus against Uruguayans? A thought about the point Mrs. Redboots brought up: I myself (I'm Canadian) don't mind when Americans contrast some British or European custom or trend to a North American one and refer to the North American one as "American". What the person speaking knows for sure is that the custom or trend is American. But for my part, when something is typical of both Canada and the States, I do say "North American". Witchmedow, I do think I'll listen to Tom Jones now -- great idea.

Boris Zakharin said...

China is sometimes called "The People's Republic", mostly in journlese (also "the middle kingdom"). I've never heard normal people using those terms in everyday speech, but there you go.

Also, the Russian Federation has "Russian" as the prefix, in a possessive form, no less, so it's a bigger stretch from that to "Russia" (it's an even bigger stretch in Russian). Yet, I don't think anyone calls it "the Federation" (except maybe Star Trek fans?)

Dick Hartzell said...

Clearly we're also going to have to come up with an alternate expression for ugly American. How about ugly USer, where USer is pronounced as user? That should satisfy most anyone who isn't from the United States.

Not long ago I discovered that Mexicans don't use the word gringo to refer to ugly USers like me; instead, their preferred term is gabacho. Weirdly, according to Wikipedia the Spanish use this word as a pejorative to refer to the French. Wikipedia says that Mexicans, however, use it strictly to refer to "White Americans". (Still, I don't think White Canadians should feel left out ... they probably qualify as gabachos too.)

Donaji said...

Having lived in Mexico for over 30 years I avoid as much as possible the terms 'America' and 'Americans' when speaking English and referring to the US. While I'm quite happy for people from anywhere to call themselves whatever they like, they are terms which are ambiguous and imprecise. They also seem out of place in Latin America.
More worrying is a certain way of seeing the world. Yesterday a Texan introduced himself to my Chilean husband and me (an Australian) as being 'from the south'.
The south of where?, we wondered.
By the way, we say 'gabacho' and 'gringo' too. Both have a derogatory edge. Sometimes US-specific, they can be used for foreigners of European descent without distinguishing nationality.

David Crosbie said...

Boris Zakharin

Talk of the People's Republic is a relic of the days when there were two countries called China. The other one is now generally (I think always) called Taiwan.

Also, the Russian Federation has "Russian" as the prefix, in a possessive form, no less,

There's no prefix and no possessive form, but I sort-of get what you mean. I would use different terminology to tease out the ways of saying 'Russia'.

The full official name of the country we call 'Russia' can best be described as a geographical adjective preceding the noun federation. That adjective is neither a prefix nor a possessive. As you know, it's one of two adjectives translatable as 'Russian' — rossiyskij (relating to the geo-political entity) and russkij (relating to the language, people, culture etc). My wife remembers a time at the end of the Soviet period when rossijskiy was perceived as a relatively unfamiliar adjective associated more with Tsarist days.

It's worth stating that in the name of the State, the possessive Рossii 'of Russia' is not used, but it can be collocated with political terms such as citizenship, flag, anthem.

Of course, the short name Rossija 'Russia' is what everybody says in ordinary speech. It's worth saying that it does have some official status. My wife has a old expired passport with that single word on the front. (Current passports say 'Russian Federation'.)

There is a form that comes first in a compound, which must make it a prefix by at least some definitions. The form is Russko- as in Russko-japonskij voina 'Russo-Japanese War' or Russko-anglijskij slovar' 'Russian-English dictionary'.
(The latter squares with the 'cultural' adjective russkij, but I'd have expected something more like the 'geographical' adjective rossijskij for the former.)

In the old days we frequently said 'Russia' when we meant 'the Soviet Union'. The distinction became important when Boris Yeltsin built a political power base in the institutions of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

David Crosbie said...


While I'm quite happy for people from anywhere to call themselves whatever they like, they are terms which are ambiguous and imprecise.

Ambiguity and imprecision are both vital in communication. Not for the important details, opt course, but for the 90% or more of information that the listener(s)/speaker(s) broadly know(s) already.

The linguist Guy Cook once wrote up a witness statement as it would have to be if all ambiguity and impression were removes. It was supposedly in repose to Tell the court what you did and saw that morning. After hundred of words, the witness still hadn't finished breakfast — let alone arrived at the crime scene or seen anything relevant to the alleged crime.

It has been essential for that Texan to say the South for most of his life. If he'd gone around his own country speaking of the southern states of the USA, people would have rightly considered him a loquacious, time-wasting eccentric — if not words.

'The South' and 'America' are no more imprecise or ambiguous that 'Dad' or 'the President' or even 'the Queen'.

If a speaker thinks the hearer may not share assumptions as to the south of where, which sense of 'America' or whose queen, then he or she will rephrase the expression. If they misjudge the hearer's knowledge and assumptions once, they'll use different words the second time. Provided, of course, that they realise that they've failed to communicate.

The best response would have been for you or your husband to say 'Sorry, the south of where?'

Andrew Levine said...

Another problem with using "Americans" in English to mean "people from the entire continents of North/South America" is that Canadians, who happen to comprise the second-largest English-speaking population of the Americas after the US, decidedly do NOT like being called "American". If you call a Canadian an "American" she will correct you. People need to accept that the word "americanos" in Latin American Spanish and the word "Americans" in English mean substantially different things.

Vasily Sergejev said...

All this is based on the fact that the word is used.
Maybe we need to go back to thinking if it really represents the idea correctly, or if it really is "wrong", and if it is (as it seems to be, considering the possibility of French calling themselves Europeans, for instance) then we may consider changing that.
Words and language change, and for a reason. For many, in fact, but you see the point.
I think the "Redskins" issue is similar to this.


David Crosbie said...


Maybe we need to go back to thinking if it really represents the idea correctly, or if it really is "wrong",

What then would be the point of language? Nice for mechanical intelligences, but of no practical use for humans — except for a few philosophers, maybe.

Anonymous said...

I'm Canadian. Personally (not speaking for millions of others), I use North American to refer to being of the US and Canada, I typically specify Central American and South American to refer to being of either area (Central America not being a continent quite honestly does not influence whether or not I do so), and American for being of the US only (which would obviously include both Alaska and Hawaii, regardless of where Hawaii is on the map). I hear 'American' used that way regularly, and have heard & used 'the Americas' to refer to North, Central and South America.

I'm surprised to learn here that people in Europe would say American in reference to something Canadian or Mexican. That rather sounds like a reference to the 'new world' - a lot has changed since then. Also, Canada being yet a Commonwealth member and the US being independent long before, it seems odd to me that someone from the UK or Ireland would think of both countries as 'American'. If that's the case, I suppose at least now I won't be lost in their conversation. Good to learn these cultural differences. ~ J.R.

David Crosbie said...

Boris Zakharin

Sorry, Boris, I've just realised where you got the term prefix from. I missed that little invention in Lynne's argument.

The terminology would work if the country was Federatsija Rossii — but it isn't. I'd be tempted to say that federatsija is a suffix.

In Britain we use (some say misuse) Republic as a 'suffix' as well as a 'prefix' when referring to our neighbour. We often say the Irish Republic, although officially it's the Republic of Ireland. Some Irish are offended by this — I can't really understand why.

So when we know we're talking about the island of Ireland, we do say the Republic to refer to the state, as opposed to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Emilio Márquez said...

Hi! I’m from Spain and this is how I deal with these matters (note the lack of logic):
1) Canada = Sp “Canadá” [kanaˈða]
2) Canadian = Sp “canadiense” [kanaˈðjense]
3) the USA = Sp “(los) Estados Unidos” [los esˈtaðos uˈniðos]
4) People from the USA = Sp “los americanos” [los ameɾiˈkanos]
5) Central and South America = Sp “América” [aˈmeɾika]
6) People from Central and South America = Sp “los sudamericanos” [los suðameɾiˈkanos]

The relationship between those terms and my subconscious mind is this:
A) Canada = France
B) the Americans = Clint Eastwood (I love him)
C) America = Spain

Dru said...

David, even more mystifying to an English person. I've always referred to the Irish Republic as Eire, pronounced Air-ǝ. It's convenient. You're making it clear which part of Ireland you mean. It's what the country calls itself on its stamps. So I've assumed that was the right term to use. I was more than somewhat surprised recently to be told that many citizens of the Republic take offence at this - though the person telling me this did not explain why. I still don't know whether they were telling me the truth or just giving vent to some personal foible of their own.

David Crosbie said...

I glazed over the idea of a prefix when I first read Lynne's post. Nothing struck me as relevant , but now I've taken notice, I think it misses the point.

Terms like French Republic and Kingdom of Spain are required to refer to jurisdictions. They identify
• where and whom a government governs
• the permanent constitutional framework and institutions by which it governs

Spain is not ruled by its king in the manner of medieval kingdoms — or, indeed, Saudi Arabia. But the constitution places the King as head of state. France uses a term from Roman history that in effect means 'not a monarchy'. A republic usually has a president, but that is not its defining feature. Rather it claims (truthfully or not) that the ruler or regime at any given time has been selected by the permanent rules of the ruled — in short, under its constitution. The terms state and commonwealth make essentially the same claim.

A significant complication arises when kingdoms, republics, states, commonwealths amalgamate — creating one superordinate and two or more subordinate jurisdictions. The wording varies, but the principle is the same.
• 'Britain' was formed as the union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England — and still has two distinct legal systems (unlike Wales or Northern Ireland)
• 'Germany' is a federation of states and city-states.
• The USSR was a union of republics, one of which was 'Russia' — itself a federation of smaller polities.
• 'America' is union of constituents mostly called states

The choice between union and federation may (or may not) reflect different characteristics of the amalgamation, but signals the same superordinate-constituent relationship. Similarly, political claims such as People's Republic, Democratic Republic, Arab Republic, Islamic Republic etc don't affect the institutional status of the 'country'.

These superordinate terms serve in their own countries to identify the level of polity, without any mention of the geographical name: Germans know what Federative Republic means; we know what United Kingdom means; you know what United States means. But the whole world knows what United States means because of your global importance. They even know what United Kingdom means — partly because of our former importance, probably more because the alternative United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is such a mouthful.

United and States are essential terms in specifying the political entity. To call them a prefix seems somehow to trivialise them.


Anonymous said...

When I was abroad, for six months as a college student, I reverted to staying I was 'from the States' because of the Canadians who would get offended when I called myself American. All I heard was 'oh my gosh, there are other people who live in North America' blah blah blah. Even though they only have 10% of the population of the US and they have another word to define them, which is Canadian. In my experience they are the ones who get the most offended. Also, I feel that they are mostly a group of people who are either annoyed at being associated with the US or offended at being overlooked due to a smaller national influence than the US.

All in all, I believe that the US should get to claim 'American', and I will continue to refer to other people groups as their countries as well (Mexican, Brazilian, Canadian) and when they add the word 'America' to their country name then we can discuss it.

I know I sound conceited, but I'm really just tired of the argument. It's not fair that we get stripped of our title for ourselves because other's are offended by our use. South Africa's inhabitants get to call themselves 'South African', even though there are clearly other south African countries.

Boris Zakharin said...

@David Crosbie,
There are still two Chinas (at least in the sense of two entities calling themselves China), though I don't think the current Journalese usage of "the People's Republic" is of a disambiguative nature. It's just a way to avoid repeating "China" in the article. After all, everyone knows there is only one people's republic (never mind that People's Republic of Bangladesh also exists. To be fair, it's clear from context). I wonder if the self-declared people's republics in Ukraine will eliminate this journalistic usage.

As for Russian, you're right that it's not really possessive. That was a mistake on my part. Also, Russia as a republic of the Soviet Union was still known as Russia despite having a lengthy name somewhat different in form from the other republics.

As an aside, was the Soviet Union the only country whose geographic location was not part of the full name?

David Crosbie said...


As an aside, was the Soviet Union the only country whose geographic location was not part of the full name?

Some names spring to mind: The Sublime Porte, The Holy See, The Holy Roman Empire. The translation of Burkina Faso, is something like 'Land of Upright People'.

Further back in history there was the Khanate of the Golden Horde, which admittedly allows for the possibility of a movable polity. Entities named after their population such as the Cherokee Nation and Indian Territory had a status one step lower than state before they were absorbed by the new State of Oklahoma. For decades after, buds singers continued to sing

Been to the Nation, been to the Territo'.

As for two Chinas, I don't think anybody in Britain now refers to Nationalist China. The country's own propaganda, at least on our TV, speaks of Taiwan.

David Crosbie said...


buds singers

Make that blues singers.

Boris Zakharin said...

The Holy Roman Empire at least saw itself as having connections to Rome (and/or the Roman Empire). The Holy See, if I understand correctly, is not the name of the state, which is called "Vatican City State". As for Burkina Faso, most geographic names can ultimately be translated to mean something. Ukraine is probably the best known example, meaning something like "borderland" or "by the border", so I don't think that should count. The Golden Horde seems to have not called itself that, though written sources from that era and location are scarce.

Taiwan officially calls itself "Republic of China". I've seen that term used in their tourist advertising in US magazines, although in small lettering after "Taiwan" in large print.

Dark Star in the Morning said...

There really is the problem of not having anything specific to use for the people of the USA. As was pointed out here, which America? There's a lot of other countries in North and South America. And as was gone into in detail in your other post, shortening it to The States begs the question of what states? The states of where? That's almost as non-specific as America and Americans.

That leaves us with United. I think that's been taken already -- United Kingdom, United Airlines, United Federation of Planets, Manchester United......

.....uh, yeah -- United's out. What's left?

Of. We're Ofians, from Of.

I don't think that's going to work.......

Little Black Sambo said...

When did we (in England, etc) begin referring to ourselves in everyday speech as the Yookay? I first heard it in common use on a merchant ship in 1970. When used in (e.g.) weather forecasts, it sounds wrong - "rain across most of the UK".

Lisandro Lorea said...

Most Latin Americans(with maybe the exception of Mexicans) when reading "The United States of America" understand it as "a union of states in the continent called America". For them, the important part is "The United States" and "America" is just a suffix. Assuming that Americans new the name of the continent they were living in it sounds really weird that they would choose the same name for their country, so they conclude that when Americans use the word "America" they mean "the America that matters".

As an Argentinian, I don't really care much. It's just a word and the meaning is clear, and I think that 'United-statian' is a really long and stupid sounding word.

David Crosbie said...

Little Black Samba

When did we (in England, etc) begin referring to ourselves in everyday speech as the Yookay?

The first written use found by the OED is from the end of the nineteenth century

1892 Daily News 27 Oct. 7/4 The supplies at sea for U.K. have decreased 32,000 quarters on the week... Supplies at sea for U.K. have further slightly decreased.

This surprises me because there's no the. I associate Yookay without the with communities of expatriate Brits.

My wife, who first came to Britain at the start of the seventies, doesn't think she heard Yookay or the Yookay until we went to Egypt some months later.

This suggest that the British students I mixed with in Russia didn't use it either.

And it wouldn't be in conversational use much here in Britain because we didn't speak so much about living in foreign countries, so there wasn't a contrast — not a salient one generally in our thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Lisandro Lorea wrote: so they conclude that when Americans use the word "America" they mean "the America that matters"

Interesting. If most people who are perturbed by people from the U.S. calling themselves "American" really do have that attitude, no wonder they get annoyed.

But I believer there are two disconnects, probably rooted in some sort of linguistic relativity, going on here:

1. First, many Americans (of my generation, at least) lack the internal continental identity that people from other countries might hold. So, when they think "America", they aren't thinking of the continent(s). We use more specific terms for the continent(s).

2. Second, as Lynne pointed out, we're taught that there are two continents (hence my parenthetical S above) with America as part of their names. So when we think of the continents, most of us probably aren't thinking "America"; most of us are probably thinking "North America" and "South America" as terms that aren't able to be broken down into their component parts without losing their meaning.

Maybe if the AmE standard spellings became Southamerica and Northamerica, the way we tend to designate ourselves would become less offensive.

Anonymous in New Jersey

arwel said...

David and Dru.

With regard to the name of the country on the island to the west of us, officially as defined in the Constitution in English it is simply "Ireland", and "Éire" is only used when speaking Irish. "Irish Republic is viewed as wrong because it was the name of the 32-county state proclaimed at the start of the Easter arising in 1916 and suppressed a few days later. "Republic of Ireland"/"Poblacht na hÉireann" is a description of the State, not part of the name (it appeared on a couple of stamps in 1949/50, immediately after the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act).

arwel said...

Dratted automatic spelling corrections! I meant "Easter Rising", of course....

David Crosbie said...


the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act

That would support my impression that it's yet another term for a jurisdiction.

Ireland is a geographical country-name just as America is a geographical country-name. The parallel goes further in that the country Ireland is within the island of Ireland, just as the country America was established as a collection of states within what was then perceived as the continent of America.

Personally, I regard that notion of America being a continent as a historical concept of no current relevance. I don't know of anyone who doesn't say the Americas to express the modern concept.

Yes there are a few contexts where it might be tactless to imply that Brazilians, Canadians etc are not 'American'. By the same token there are a few contexts where it might be tactless to imply that people from the six counties are not 'Irish'.

The names are fine, it's just the way they're used that can be tricky.

James Kabala said...

Anonymous from New Jersey: Bingo. For Americans (U.S. people), "America" is a subdivision of a larger entity called "North America." There is no other place called "America;" the entity larger than North America is "the Americas." It may not be strictly logical, but there it is. Thank you for putting it so lucidly.

Anonymous said...

@James Kabala

I differ with you one one important thing: I have only rarely thought of or said the term "the Americas" — probably only in the context of discussions like this one and during the Olympics or World Cup.

In my mind, those places are "North America" and "South America" — and the terms can't be broken up without completely changing their meanings.


Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Re Ireland: My husband is from Northern Ireland, and always specifies, although he will say that he is Irish (or British). "The Republic" is always referred to as that, although my father-in-law called it the "Free State" until the day he died!

Meanwhile and conversely, I understand that many of those who live in the Republic refer to the "Six Counties", as Northern Ireland is sometimes called, as "The North of Ireland", rather than giving them implicit recognition as a separate country.

Anonymous said...

Even the full title, "The United States of America" is insufferably presumptuous, when you think about it. It suggests an absolute expansionist ambition, just as when the state in the southern part of Cyprus calls itself "Cyprus" and the state in the southern part of Ireland calls itself "Ireland". Because they encode realisable threats, these names are all quite distasteful.
Taiwan's official name is just comical, however.

John Burgess said...

Peevers gotta peeve, else what's life for?

mollymooly said...

Whereas in the Republic of Ireland, "Britain" nearly always means Great Britain, my impression is that people in Great Britain use "Britain" for the kingdom and "Great Britain" for the island (excluding Northern Ireland). In which case, just as "America" is smaller than "North America", so "Great Britain" is smaller than "Britain".

"Europe" is another continent whose name has been appropriated by a (quasi-)state that does not cover the whole of its extent.

I think people in the Republic of Ireland are more likely to be comfortable calling Northern Ireland "Northern Ireland" than calling it a "country". The least contentious descriptor among politicians here is "jurisdiction".

Ted said...

Perhaps the most confusing aspect of all of this is that Ireland is part of Britain.

As for me, I follow the lead of great statesman and former presidents and refer to our country as Merka, demonym Merkin. Of course, that presents its own difficulties.

David Crosbie said...

I don't think it's universally acceptable to use Britain to denote the whole of the British Isles. In Ireland, I understand that even British Isles is unacceptable — at least in some contexts. I believe the words have been erased from certain atlases.

I would guess that most of us on this side of the Irish Sea say Britain to mean 'UK' — unless, of course, we currently have a contrast in mind with 'Ireland' (the island or the state), in which case, we'd say the UK or (occasionally) Great Britain.

This is one of the to way are two ways we use Great Britain.

1. Specifically (and accurately) to denote the large island than comprises England, Scotland and Wales.

2. Loosely as a substitute for 'UK' — speaking when there 's no thought of Northern Ireland in mind.
This is particularly true
a. when using initials, as in Team GB, GB-USSR Association and the car numberplate GB.
b. (in the past) writing addresses which were translations such Großbritanien, Великобритания etc
c. Speaking French, because Bretagne (without Grand) means 'Brittany'.

Pythonesque said...

"On the model of continents generally taught in English-speaking nations, America is two continents: North America and South America."

Perhaps this is just your recollection from (lower-grade?) geography as taught and understood in America? Most other English-speaking nations I'm familiar with, including Canada, include Central America as one of the three Americas. It's as easily distinguishable from North America as Europe is from Asia. I also note that the only comments here that recognize this are by a Canadian and a Spaniard.

One gripe that many Canadians have with most Americans is that they often want us (non-American North Americans) to believe that "American" is intended to be inclusive, such as when they talk about the "American Robin" or the "American Crow", when we know darn well it's not! Even more egregious, a species that once had the common name "Northern three-toed woodpecker" throughout North America (for obvious reasons--just see the map at was fairly recently renamed "American three-toed woodpecker" by Cornell and/or Audubon for no good reason.

lynneguist said...

Central America was never taught as a continent, in my experience, but as a geographical/cultural area. You might learn about Central America in social studies, but you wouldn't in Earth Sciences...

mollymooly said...

For the two-American-continents model, there are two subdivisions, namely "North America" and "South America".

For the one-American-continent model, there are four subdivisions: "North America", "Central America", and "South America", but also the Caribbean islands. Mexico may be considered part of North or Central America.

The division into "Latin/Ibero- America" and "North/Anglo- America" does not accommodate the Guyanas or Dutch Antilles; and depending on whether French is considered Latin or not, it misplaces either the French Antilles or Quebec (and St Pierre and Miquelon).

Sitzman said...

Hello Lynne,

Thanks so much for writing this post!

I'm a dual United States of American / Republic of Costa Rican citizen, and even though I don't refer to myself as an "American" when speaking Spanish, and even though when speaking English I almost always refer to the USA as "The USA" or "The US" instead of just "America," I still constantly get people challenging me and criticizing people from The USA for doing so. I wrote a short post for my students ( but in the future I'll refer them to your post, and also include a link to your post on my site. Your explanations are just spot-on.

Thanks again, and best of luck!

Emilio Márquez said...

Hello again! Here’s what Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (8th ed. 2010) says just below its entry for “American”:

More About


–The continent of AMERICA is divided into NORTH AMERICA and SOUTH AMERICA. The narrow region joining North and South America is CENTRAL AMERICA.

–NORTH AMERICA, which is a geographical term, consists of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, CANADA and MEXICO. LATIN AMERICA, a cultural term, refers to the non-English speaking countries of Central and South America, where mainly Portuguese and Spanish are spoken. Mexico is part of Latin America.

–The UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is usually shortened to the USA, the US, the STATES or simply AMERICA: “the US President # Have you ever been to the States? # She emigrated to America in 1995.” Many people from other parts of the continent dislike this use of AMERICA to mean just the US, but it is very common.

–AMERICAN is usually used to talk about somebody or something from the United States of America: “Do you have an American passport? # American football # I’m not American, I’m Canadian.” LATIN AMERICAN and SOUTH AMERICAN are used to refer to other parts of the continent: “Latin American dance music # Quite a lot of South Americans study here.”

Ted said...

Just noticed the anonymous comment from July 24 ( saying "Even the full title, 'The United States of America' is insufferably presumptuous, when you think about it. It suggests an absolute expansionist ambition . . . ."

No, it isn't and it doesn't, except to those who are projecting pre-existing sentiments onto neutral language.

"America" is a region. Within that region are a number of states. Of those states, a subset have chosen to unite with one another (for purposes of their relations with other nations; they retain their status as distinct sovereign states for purposes of internal relations). One might even say they are those states of America that have united -- in other words, the united states of America.

It's very much parallel to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There are two differences: First, these have merged into a single kingdom rather than retain their status as four separate kingdoms. (They remain distinct countries, with separate legal systems (except in the case of England and Wales), but the Queen is the queen of the whole unit at once. Compare Australia and Canada, which are separate kingdoms although Elizabeth Windsor is queen of each.) Second, they fill up the whole of the region described -- there are no kingdoms that are part of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but not part of the United Kingdom.

Still, Great Britain once had three kingdoms. After the first Acts of Union, there was one: not England nor Scotland nor Wales, but the united kingdom of Great Britain. After 1801, Ireland became part of the Union, and I suppose the UK could just as easily have been called the United Kingdom of Britain (Ireland being part of Britain, though not of Great Britain), in which case they wouldn't have had to change the name to acknowledge the independence of southern Ireland.

Likewise, the existence of a country called the United Arab Emirates is descriptive, not presumptuous. It does not exclude the possibility of Arab countries, even Arab emirates, that remain independent. And it certainly does not mean that Abu Dhabi has designs on Qatar.

David Crosbie said...

America is a whole continent
On the model of continents generally taught in English-speaking nations, America is two continents: North America and South America.

"America" is a region. Within that region are a number of states.(Ted)

Well, the truth is in there, but the terminology rather gets in the way. The OED doesn't have encyclopaedic articles for proper names, but America merits a place as a noun meaning 'a place which one longs to reach'. Famously John Donne wrote

Licence my roaving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below,
O my America! my new-found-land,
My Kingdom's safest when with one man man'd

The OED begins its etymological explanation:

< America, the name of a land mass of the Western hemisphere, consisting of the two continents of North and South America, joined by the Isthmus of Panama; frequently used also as the name of the United States of America;

How wise! Land mass, that's the term!

The adjective and noun American obviously merits an entry. Most of the senses they identify are completely uncontroversial. The sense which which people make a fuss about is this:

a. Originally: of, relating to, or characteristic of the European (esp. British) colonies in North America or their inhabitants. Now chiefly: of, relating to, or characteristic of the United States or its inhabitants.

This is what speakers of English did 'originally' say, and what they do 'now chiefly' say. Two facts which can't be argued away by demands that people should say something different.

vp said...


"America" is a region. Within that region are a number of states. Of those states, a subset have chosen to unite with one another (for purposes of their relations with other nations; they retain their status as distinct sovereign states for purposes of internal relations). One might even say they are those states of America that have united -- in other words, the united states of America.

You could be talking about Mexico or Brazil (both of which consist of "united states") as much as the USA.

Martyn Cornell said...

All people from the United States of America come from the landmass known as America, and are thus entitled to call themselves Americans, just as all French people come from the landmass known as Europe and are entitled to call themselves Europeans. That doesn't stop people from Germany calling themselves Europeans, and people from the USA calling themselves Americans doesn't stop people from Canada, Mexico or Brazil calling themselves Americans either.

David Crosbie said...


We're all 'entitled' to call ourselves Earthmen and Earthwomen but we don't — outside the context of science-fiction re-enactment.

If people from France call themselves 'European' it doesn't communicate their nationality or citizenship— in any context. If people from the USA call themselves 'American' it does — in all but a very few contexts.

American means what it does though successful communicative use. What it 'should' mean, how people are 'entitled' to use the word ... these are non-issues. We might as well debate whether the word is beige enough, or whether we are entailed to gargle with it.

Ted said...

@vp: Perhaps. I don't know enough history or comparative law to say whether the Mexican or Brazilian states had a period of true independence where they weren't subordinate to another sovereign for purposes of international relations, as the now-United States did between the Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution. So it may not be perfectly analogous.

But in any case, the former English colonies became independent first, which is why our neighbors to the south distinguished themselves as the United Mexican States when they adopted a similar federal structure. Sure, in theory they could also have described themselves as "states of America," but that already meant something else in a way that it didn't when the thirteen former colonies started using the phrase.

It's like saying that "the Netherlands" could refer to the Bangladesh Plain rather than the Rhine-Meuse basin. Yes, it could, but it doesn't.

John W. said...

Thank you. You hit on the most important point in the article when you noted that there is much more of a need to describe residents of the United States than there is for residents of the Western Hemisphere. How often do any of us actually have a need for the latter?

As an aside, I'm surprised to read in some of the comments that Canadians might take issue with the term "American." I live in Michigan, near the border with Canada, and interact with Canadians all them. I've never met anyone who is offended by "American" - if anything, Canadians tend to stress than they are NOT Americans.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Indeed they do, which is why I have found some of them to be offended when the term "American" is used when referring to something that exists or happens in both countries - wolves, for instance, or grizzly bears. They are, my Canadian friends remind me, North American!

Ted said...

I think what John W. meant is that Canadians are not offended by the term "America" when used to refer exclusively to the United States. There is no question that, as Mrs. Redboots suggests, Canadians object to the term when the reference includes Canada as well.

To Canadians, Canadians are North Americans but they are not Americans. I think this is consistent with both your comments. Canadians are like Americans in that they disagree with the proposition (which, as Lynne describes in her original post, is sometimes put forward, often by non-English-L1 speakers) that "America" includes more than the United States and should not be used to refer only thereto.

As a corollary, they are unlike Americans in that Americans believe the statement "I am American" is true and Canadians believe the statement "I am American" is false, whereas the non-English-L1 speakers described above would argue that "I am American" should be true when spoken by either an American or a Canadian.

Of course, Canadians would also argue that the statement "I am North American" is true when spoken by either an American or a Canadian. So, presumably, do the non-English-L1 speakers. Americans don't necessarily disagree; they just can't imagine why anyone would ever say that.

Is everything clear now?

Albert Herring said...

There was briefly another United Kingdom, although now of purely historical interest - the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, formed after the Napoleonic Wars and consisting more or less of the whole modern Benelux area; it came to an end when Belgium broke away in its brief war of independence in 1830.

Also, in French-speaking circles at least, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is quite frequently referred to as just "le grand-duché" tout court, both because of the francophone stylistic mania for never repeating the same term twice in a text, and in order to distinguish it from the neighbouring Belgian province of Luxembourg. As Lynne notes, actual usage tends to sort this sort of ambiguity out quite adequately.

Anonymous said...

A country's independence has nothing to do with the topic in discussion. America is a the name of a continent. It was officially named America in 1507 by German Cartographer Martin Waldseemüller after Amerigo Vespucci. Originally, the name exclusively applied to the southern hemisphere of the continent since the north was still unexplored. This is why when the US calls itself America forgetting this important piece of history it enrages most Americans across the continent.

Chileans, Argentinians, Colombians, Venezuelans, Brazilians, etc, they have been Americans for longer than US citizens and they haven't stopped being Americans because America is the official name of the continent to date.

The US position on this matter is then seen as disrespectful but also historically inaccurate. Note also that their definition of the "New World" as two separate continents weakens its position even more when they say "North AMERICA" and "South AMERICA". The offical and unique name of the continent cannot be taken away by the US. North and South only make references to hemispheres; not different continents, the same way you say Northern Europe and Southern Europe, they are still Europe.

Irene C. said...

The irony of all of this is that "the United States" did not start calling *itself* "America" nor did its citizens start calling themselves "Americans" originally.

*The British* used the term "American" for the denizens of, wait for it, "British America" from the 17th century onward (as a way of winding them up -- yes -- about their culturally creole Britishness). The said non-quite-British late stage colonials then began to reclaim the epithet in the 1760s. "The United Colonies" of "British America" then formed, and two years after that declared they were independent of Britain, and thus (ex)-states of "British America". Really, if there *had* been a distinct collective term for the whole group of 13, it surely would have been used, as "Canada" was for New France and then the Anglophone provinces together, or as "Mexico" was for the bulk of northern New Spain that covered most of the former empire of the Mexica. Even, indeed, as "New England" was. But such a term for the 13 new united states as a whole was never devised. That's all: given how British colonization in North America played out, there is no other term.

So, "The US position on this matter is then seen as disrespectful but also historically inaccurate"? Well, I would make the case that it's not only Latin American history that gets to matter here; this history of nation-state formation on the continent of North America matters, too. Not more than the Latin American history, but not *less* than, either.

vp said...

@Irene C.

Washington uses "America" to refer to the United States in his inaugural address:

"And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."