the States

I've had a couple of queries lately about the States as a nickname for the United States of America--with some implication that Americans in Britain learn to say this from the British. One query was (indirectly, through their [BrE] tutor/[AmE] professor) from an American student who has come over on a summer exchange program(me). The other was from Laura, who wrote:
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).
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:
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 %
America1270181%13%32,2009223% 14%
the States313124%9%23,20013306%20%
the US709598%44%63,50028905%43%
the USA17,500402%30%30,0006872%10%
the United States127064%4%23,2008424%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.
South Africa
the States=4/54/2=4/54/2
the US3/43/33/21/1
the USA=1/12/41/32/5
the United States=4/25/5=4/45/4

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...


  1. I have no idea why there is a big empty space above the second table!

  2. I don't have anything constructive to contribute to this subject, but it reminds me of this great sketch by Fry & Laurie.

  3. Where I'm from on the east coast of Canada, it is referred to almost exclusively as "the States" .. much to the annoyance of my American friends at university (mostly from Maine, NY, Mass) who never failed to remind us that their country is "America."

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Certainly. When Americans say "The States" we are referring to state level government in the aggregate.

  6. I'm Canadian and also refer to "the States" almost exclusively. I tend not to use America because I think of America as a continent, not a country.

  7. My own experience as a AmE-speaking expat, 1990-1996, may be useful as a data point, if not generally:

    I was thirteen when my family moved to Guatemala, at which point I first became conscious that saying "America" as a synonym for "the United States of America" might not be uncontroversial. Guatemala, I was informed, is also part of America, as are several less important countries.

    In GUA-Sp, there were several other options to call myself, besides pure americano: estadounidense, formally; norteamericano, diplomatically; and on a sliding scale from informal to derogatory, depending on who you were speaking to, gringo.

    But as I went to an English-speaking school, most of my choices of what to call my country of origin (which was the same as nearly all the other kids' in school, save for a couple of Canadians) were more limited.

    "America" was okay, but understood as slightly bigoted, and liable to be mocked. "The U.S." was also okay, but a little formal (and "the USA," hyperformal, was completely out of bounds). My preferred usage was "the States," even if I sounded a little self-conscious about it. (I got it either from a book, an old movie, or conversation with European/Australian tourists.) There's a hint of affected familiarity there which my circle of junior high and later high school wasn't too comfortable with.

    In fact, I recall there always being a bit of social anxiety about what to call The Country We Came From But Don't Necessarily Know That Well. It was often papered over by referring to specific states or regions.

  8. "Deprecated" is not the same as "deprecating". The former is often used with features in software, and means "obsolete". The latter, as you know, means "derogatory".

  9. I agree with your discomfort over "the USA", but I disagree with your interpretation of Richard Fontana's "deprecated". I think he meant exactly what he said: many people consider to be an inappropriate usage. (Of course, it's only familiarity that disambiguates "the States" as refering to specifically to "the United States of America" and not "the States of Alderney" or "the United Mexican States". For what it's worth, in the U.S. I hear "the States" used primarily by Canadians, and rarely if ever by natives (when referring to the federal state known as "the United States", as opposed to the individual states collectively).

  10. But why not in Australia? An English friend has wondered whether in the UK the States has an echo of the Colonies. Maaaayybeeeee.

    Or maybe because Australia has its own states. "State" without a qualifier, normally refers to a state of Australia. In an appropriate context "the States" would readily be understood to refer to the US, but nevertheless its not a natural usage for Australians.

  11. I suspect there is some unavoidable experimental error in both tables. I know that I use "the US" in speech but amend it to "the USA" in writing to avoid the US/us confusion.

    Also "Are you from America?" may be preferred to avoid the embarrassment of asking a Canadian "Are you from the US?" by people who don't have the experience distinguishing them.

  12. I was an AmE speaking expat in the UK for 4 years (2002-2005, 2007) and I found it to be completely opposite. Brits all referred to my country as "America" which to my ears sounded rather droll, and like something from a primary school book.

    I, on the other hand, always referred to my country of origin as "the States" until I was taken to task, along the lines suggested by Peregrinus, by a Brit who said, "The States of What? Australia? India?" Hmmm. Hadn't ever thought of that angle.

    I compromised, in the end, by saying I was from Chicago. :-)

  13. funny -- when I lived in south africa, the reason i didn't say 'the states' was because in loud places (bars, etc.) people often thought i was saying 'free state', referring to the orange free state.

  14. I'm Australian. I started using "the States" after moving to Berlin, where I lived for several years. I distinctly remember picking it up from the American expats there, who all seemed to use "the States" all the time to refer to their country of origin. I copied them mainly because it seemed to be THE term to use and anything else would have sounded gauche! But it is clearly easier to say than "the US" and doesn't have the difficult semantics of "America".

    However, I don't use the term in Australia - unless the people I'm talking to are Estadounidenses themselves. I think Australians either won't readily understand the term, or they'll regard it as pretentious or presumptious. I think this has much to do with what other commenters have said about Australia, like South Africa, having states of its own.

  15. Blame the Beach Boys!

    I think that 'The States' became popular after 'California Girls' was a hit in the seventies.

  16. I've been under the impression for a long time that "the States" was preferred by Americans because "America" means the whole continent. It comes as quite a surprise to learn that this isn't so!

    1. I, a Californian now living in the Northeast, have never heard an American say "the States." It's the US or America. Only cheesy patriotic sorts say "the USA."

  17. Interesting post, with a bit of google reader meta going on. Personally, I started more or less consciously using “the states” when I moved to the UK because I thought America was too presumptuous -- it could mean two continents.(I still use America sometimes – usually just after someone else has.) Most Americans I know over here use “the states” – so maybe we teach it to each other. When people ask me where I’m from I say California, assuming they’ve already figured I’m from “the states” or at least will figure it out then. But when I’m travelling outside the UK I say I’m from America. Go figure.

  18. I agree about "America" as two continents rather than just one country. I got into a bit of trouble on another topic for that. I often use "USAmerica" and "USAmericans" as a kind of compromise.

  19. In America I always call it America, but you're right-- I usually call it The States with foreigners. It's especially important with South Americans (I have some Brazilian friends), who are annoyed that everyone in the world calls the US "America" when they're from an America too. When in Spain/Portugal, my Brazilian friend told me, they say they're from "the Americas" before getting country-specific, like I say "the States" before specifying city/state.

  20. I live in the United States, but I work for a branch of a Japanese company covering North and South America. I generally refer to our total area as "the Americas," and I usually call the main market "North America," even though the US makes up the majority of that.

    I do refer to "the States" when talking with Europeans or other North Americans, even though it feels vaguely (only vaguely, not strongly) like an affectation. It feels less official and more self-consciously slangy than "the US."

    My experience is that defaulting to "North America" rather than "America" or "the US" tends to get the same reaction spelling with "zee or zed as in zulu" gets: US citizens take it in stride, and Canadians give you an immediate small boost in goodwill.

  21. One thought as to why people would consider "The States" to be offensive/deprecating might stem from the same "People calling us British when we are from Wales" that tends to pop up here from time to time.
    Those people might assume that people from the US feel the same way in being lumped together.
    Not the strongest argument really, but there might be something there.

    Frankly, I think I will start calling us "The Colonies" again just for fun.

  22. Richard Fontana23 July, 2009 15:17

    I'm the "Areff" from the old AUE posting that Lynne quoted (Ben Zimmer alerted me to this). Regarding my usage of "deprecated": this is a common software developer colloquialism that means "not banned, but further use is strongly frowned upon". See .

    I stand by the statement I made in that AUE post. I think Americans in the US commonly use "America" as the 'poetic' name of the country; "the USA" as the standard lowfalutin name of the country; and "the United States" or "the US" as formal names. It is in international contexts that Americans use "the States", and I continue to believe that this is because of an apparently mistaken view that this is how non-Americans abroad typically refer to the US.

  23. "America" is certainly the most common word used by British people in my opinion. It's interesting that "U.S." is hardly ever used by British people. ("U.S.A." is probably used slightly more). From listening and reading Americans, it's clear that "U.S." is one of their most favoured ways of referring to the country.

  24. When I lived in Detroit (many years ago) I read a reader's letter complaining about a weekend newspaper feature that had referred to Papua New Guinea as PNG. It seemed odd that someone from the USA should take exception to this usage, especially as I am pretty sure that Australians and PNG citizens use it routinely.
    But perhaps if you never leave the USA, it's just 'home' and you don't have to think about which variant to use.
    In Britain we have UK and GB - the former for passports and immigration, the latter for postal purposes (precede your post code with GB when writing from Europe). I might say that I live in the United Kingdom, but less frequently Great Britain.

  25. I certainly use "the States" quite a lot, but I think I picked it up from my parents. I've no idea if they picked it up from Brits or not.

    Incidentally, I'm not sure web searches are particularly useful for this question. There are obvious practical reasons why people would preferentially type abbreviations or shorter phrases instead of longer ones, no matter which form they use in speech or more formal writing.

  26. @nat:

    Interesting that you mention American expats in Berlin. I grew up in the US military community in West Berlin, and "the States" was perfectly normal usage back in the day. Returning home was known as "going Stateside" -- or for the terminally homesick, "going back to the World". "America" was reserved for chest-thumping, patriotic contexts (as in South Park's "Amurrica, **** yeah!")

  27. I (BrE, middle-aged) tend to refer to it as "America" except when I'm speaking to a native of the USA, in which case I'd probably say "The States" or "The USA". And, of course, when differentiating it from Canada: "There were fewer people than usual from the USA at our competition this summer, but the Canadians sent a huge team."

  28. I have a very similar experience to John's: "When are you rotating back to the States?" was standard usage. In fact, I think I'd be much more likely to use "the States" with an American* (when outside the country) than with somebody from outside the US.

    * In the usual sense; feel free to be offended if it makes you happy.

  29. Thanks for the clarifications on 'deprecated' and all of the personal feedback. I'm not surprised that this one was quick to collect a lot of comments!

    (Now does anyone know why I can't get rid of that long blank space?)

  30. First re: the 2nd table position. I suspect it's either because you have a hard line break (br /) between the first (blank) row and the second, or because the first row lacks an align="right" attribute and it's picking up alignment from CSS.

    Second: the States. I think I learned this from my brother-in-law when he was in Vietnam. I'd be surprised if it didn't originate in the military (as other commenters have suggested) long ago, where it is used pretty much only among troops stationed out of country.

  31. "This is a deprecated usage outside of military and diplomatic contexts."

    I believe he is using "deprecated" to mean something that is discouraged from being used or retired from use.

    I don't believe he was implying that the use of the term is deprecating.

  32. "I'd be surprised if it didn't originate in the military (as other commenters have suggested) long ago, where it is used pretty much only among troops stationed out of country."

    This makes sense in my case, though I'm not saying it's definitely the reason. My dad spent his early years on an army base in Germany.

  33. I very rarely hear the word "deprecating," (although I do know what it means), but I use and see "deprecated" quite a lot as a web development student. It means obsolete (and in the case of HTML, flatly discouraged and non-standard).

    I have always used the term "the US" to refer to my country. Lately I tend to say "United States" more. When I hear the term "the States," I think of states' rights, or the states in general, rather than as a country. I also use US as an adjective where many people say American (such as "US-Canadian border", rather than saying "American-Canadian border" etc.). I have never referred to the US as "America," and I generally cringe at it when people do (it sounds... stupid, I guess, and to me, America refers to the Americas or at least North America. It's a geographical term). Saying "The USA" sounds overly patriotic and is generally used by people who suffer from blind patriotism (I think of "America" this way too).

  34. I took the liberty of looking at your page's source code.

    There are a whole bunch of
    tags between the chart and the paragraph before it. Take those out and your problem will be solved.

  35. In Britain we have UK and GB - the former for passports and immigration, the latter for postal purposes . . .

    I think someone from Northern Ireland might feel you're overlooking a rather more signficant disctinction between the U.K. and Great Britain.

  36. I am a 35yr. old American ex-army brat. When we lived in Germany and Turkey, we used the term, the States, all the time to other Americans. To the Germans and Turks, I always used America. I guess because they always used that term.

  37. I'm with you, Lynn, in instinctively deprecating the techno-speak usage of "deprecated" (the original meaning has now been so lost that these days it means, more often than not, no more than "obsolete").

    On this question, though, I admit I'll have to display solidarity* with good old King Knud in his seashore demonstration of what just cannot be changed.

    * "Display solidarity" -- clumsy phrase: why does English have no single word for the French adjective solidaire? Surely it can't be because the "Anglo-Saxons" have no real grasp of the concept? After all, even the French have a word for "entrepreneur" :-)

  38. Biochemist wrote: >>In Britain we have UK and GB - the former for passports and immigration, the latter for postal purposes<<

    Peregrinus wrote: I think someone from Northern Ireland might feel you're overlooking a rather more signficant disctinction between the U.K. and Great Britain.

    I agree with you, Peregrinus, although I'm puzzled because Biochemist's other comment (I live in the United Kingdom, but less frequently Great Britain) would suggest that (s)he DOES live in Northern Ireland, which is, after all, AFAIK the only part of the UK which is outside of Great Britain.

  39. I (AmE), too, have only used "the States" while overseas. I think it's because "America" is problematic for the reasons already noted and "United States" and its variations is a mouthful. Interestingly, in Greek they often say ΗΠΑ -- pronounced "EE-pah" -- which is the acronym corresponding to USA.

  40. I always say "America" when referring to the USA.

    The use of "America" in the UK is widespread because here there's no ambiguity. Anyone wishing to refer to North and South America combined (which is extremely rare) would invariably use "the Americas".

  41. I just read this* joke on a blog, and when I went to identify myself as from the US in the comments, I wanted to write "from the states." Didn't want to say "I'm an American/from the US" which sounded too patriotic and pompous. It seems like an offhand way to say, no, I'm not English or Scottish or Irish, but I speak a version of that language, and get the joke too. I think.

    *A man is cupping his hand to scoop water from a Highland burn.

    The gamekeeper shouts, 'Dinnae drink thon water min, it's foo o' coo's shite n pish.'

    The man replies, 'My good fellow, I'm English.... repeat that in English.'

    The gamekeeper replies, 'I said use both hands - you get more that way.'

  42. @Anonymous with the source code advice.

    I just don't see it--neither when I use 'edit html' on blogger nor when I look at the source code in my browser. It goes straight from the previous paragraph to the 'table' tag and then there's nothing extra between that and the first cell in the table. I just tried deleting and retyping the end of the paragraph and the beginning of the table, just in case that would get rid of something that I couldn't see, but that has done no good either.

    It's making me grumpy.

  43. Sarah said: "I'm Canadian and also refer to "the States" almost exclusively. I tend not to use America because I think of America as a continent, not a country."

    Me too. Or occasionally I might say "the US" instead.

  44. I know this conversation is a bit old by now, but as an ex-pat I feel compelled to kick my two cents in.

    When I first moved to New Zealand I was gently, but unmistakeably reminded by my co-workers, friends and neighbors that "america" was not as specific as I might have thought.

    I have mostly switched to using "the states" as an inelegant, but serviceable work-around because that's what those around me use.

    So, Richard Fontana may well be correct that "the states" is almost exclusively used by ex-pats, but I disagree that that usage represents some sort of naive mistake.

    My data might be somewhat corrupted by the fact that I work with as many brits and canadians as kiwis.

  45. Lynneguist-- you could always add a tantalizing segue: "Scroll down for more fascinating results!" or something of the like.

  46. Kevin and Peregrinus: You are quite right - UK includes NI, but GB doesn't. I had momentarily forgotten this distinction recently when I had to fill in a US imigration form - on a visit to America.
    When sending postcards from a European country (such as FR, DE, ES - that's France, Germany, Spain!) you can avoid the 'what's the word for England?' question by using GB before the post code - would it be IE for Ireland? - but I don't know what NI folk do (I live near London). Apart from that usage, I define myself as a resident of GB less frequently than I refer to the UK as my home, but I do tell Americans that I am British!

  47. As an American, I had nearly always referred to my country as "America" and only occasionally as "the US" or "the United States." I had never referred to it as just "the States."

    Then I took my first trip outside of the country, to visit Canada.

    In Toronto, all my Canadian friends referred to the US as "the States." When I said "America," one of my friends jokingly corrected me, saying that "America" could refer to two whole continents.

    This stuck in my brain, so on my first trip to England this month, I consciously referred to my home country as "the States," only to be surprised when I noticed that my British friends referred to it as "America"!

    Based on my own anecdotal experience and the comments so far of your readers, Lynne, I wonder whether Canada might be a primary source of this phrase. After all, Canadians are North Americans as well, so they're the ones most likely to find the term "America" to be a misnomer. It's certainly possible that many Americans traveling in England have also traveled in Canada and picked it up there, then spread it to other American travelers who assumed it was the right thing to say.

  48. Found a blogger help article on the problem: When I put a table in my posts, there are extra blank lines. How do I get rid of these?

    Short story is that blogger is putting in hard returns where you have them in your post. Then the browsers get confused and display the unneccessary returns between cells above the table. Edit the post so the table code doesn't have any returns in it and the space should go away.

  49. People have been saying "the States" for a long time. Originally it referred to the places people in the West had come from....the States, as opposed to the Territories. You can see it in 19th century writing.

    I haven't spent that much time overseas, but I am aware of the awkwardness....I'm more likely to identify myself as being from California than anything else. Stereotypes aside, I think most people have some idea where that is, and it doesn't carry the jingoistic connotations. More detail can be added if needed.

  50. There are a lot of variables at work here:
    * whether either/both parties are from the US, another anglophone country, Latin America, Canada, or elsewhere;
    * whether the conversation takes place in the US, the other country, or some third country
    * whether the US is being introduced as a new topic, has been foregrounded in the previous discourse, is incidental or central to the topic, etc;
    * whether the reference is predicate, attributive, etc: e.g. you can talk about "the US economy" but not "the USA economy".

    Some comparisons from an Irish perspective: calling Northern Ireland "the North" is acceptable and indeed usual in some contexts, but unaccepatable in others. "John is back from the States" is something one might plausibly say if John is mutually known to have been in the US for a while. Similarly "John is back from Saudi" [Arabia]; further discussion at Language Log.

    PS You'll be pleased to know the big blank space does not appear in "Show Original Post" on the "Leave your comment" page. Unfortunately, the HTML tables are rendered as gibberish.

  51. @Christopher: It worked! Thanks so much. (Probably should have thought to look at blogger help myself, eh?)

  52. An anonymous poster said:
    "I've been under the impression for a long time that "the States" was preferred by Americans because "America" means the whole continent."

    Silly poster, you forget that Americans think they _are_ the whole continent!

    Seriously though, I agree that "the States" and "the US" are most common in CanE for the nation-state, while the residents of said country are called "Americans".

  53. I suspect (on no evidence other than highly unreliable memory) that "the States" was once commonly used in the US, and was picked up by us British in the 50s or 60s when all things American were fashionable and smart. I sometimes say it still, and still get the faintest memory of a slight frisson from it as a smart young term. Probably the USers have long since left it behind and we are left with that dreadful provincialism, the out-of-date chic.

  54. Interesting discussion about something I've often wondered about (not coming from 'the States').

    But I feel the need to point out that very few English people call themselves 'British' or think of themselves as coming from 'Britain'. So when friends from the US talk about 'Britain' maybe I feel the same as they do when foreigners talk about 'the States'.

    I would guess that many Scots think the same.

    So the description of your blog also exemplifies the differences you are talking about!

  55. "No Englishman, & perhaps no Scot even, calls himself a Briton without a sneaking sense of the ludicrous." (Fowler MEU). I suppose 80 years later you would say "No Scot, & perhaps no Englishman even ..."

  56. Andy JS, 23 July, 2009 15:29 said...
    "America" is certainly the most common word used by British people in my opinion. It's interesting that "U.S." is hardly ever used by British people. ("U.S.A." is probably used slightly more).

    I think it depends who you talk to. Amongst my friends, family and colleagues, "the US" (not just "US") is very common indeed. FTR, I'm 40s, living in SE England, working for a UK software company with a US parent company, and have a few American (once can't say USian) relatives.

  57. I am an American ex-pat living in Berlin. While a student at a university in Washington, DC, which was also visited by many Latin American aristobrats, I learned that it was fine to call citizens of the USA 'Americans' (as there really is no other useable term) but to call the country 'America' was very un-pc.
    Today, in Germany, I usually answer the question, 'Where do you come from?' with 'Philadelphia', a rather (rightly) arrogant answer that assumes Philadelphia is an internationally well-known place that can stand on its own. My country of origin is then interpolated. (The Chicagoan and I seem to be kindred spirits.) It also avoids the need to decide whether to use US, USA or America. I would not consider using 'the States' to non-native speakers.
    Germans who wish to be 'pc' tend to use the ridiculous term 'US-American', thinking they are considering the feelings of people like Cubans or Canadians. To me it's an over-the-top 'pc'-ism.
    I think the usage of 'North American' is confusing. It is typically used to refer to the USA and Canada, but Mexico is also (a rather substantial) part of North America and is not typically meant when speaking of 'North America'.
    Even though in German the abbreviation is not U.S.A. (die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika), in German one says, 'Die USA', the letters pronounced in German - oo - ess - ah.
    All-in-all, I tend to use US, even with native speakers, which are plentiful here in Berlin.

  58. When I refer to our four years of living in New Jersey, I tend to say "When I lived in the US..."

    Seeing as I can't remember what I said before I had actually lived there, I might just do a mini-poll of my own, and get back to you!

  59. Okay, so my snap poll was answered by mostly Australians (a few of whom are married to Americans), a couple of Canadians, and a few Aussies who live or have lived in the US. They came back with the following:

    31 votes for "the US"
    21 votes for "America"
    19 votes for "the States"
    4 votes for "the USA"

    Several people use the first two choices interchangeably. A couple of people commented that they would use "America" when talking about personal things and "the US" when talking about broader political stuff.

    I was surprised; I thought there would be more people who called it America. That's the term that was used when I was growing up (in Australia).

  60. Picky quoted Fowler: "No Englishman, & perhaps no Scot even, calls himself a Briton without a sneaking sense of the ludicrous."

    Yes, but that's because a "Briton" implies an ancient Briton and you think of hill-forts and woad.

    Those same Englishmen who think "Britin" ludicrous would be happy to be called "British".

  61. I was born and live in Dublin, Ireland.

    In the past I had used the "States" to refer to the USA. On occasions I would have used "America" also. These usages are very common in Ireland. There is no ambiguity about the "States" though in some cases "America" might mean North America (ie including Canada).

    However I have been sensitised over the years and now insist on referring to the USA (not US) when that's what I mean. The Irish hate being called British and the Welsh object to being called English. I learned the latter the hard way.

    There is no reason why the USA should continue to appropriate the term US or "States". It is not unambiguous. In Jersey, Channel Islands, the term "States" refers to the local parliament.

    There is also a political element in the increasing use of "USA". There are other con/federations in the world and the appropriation of the term by the USA smacks of hegemony.

    We have the term "American wake" to describe the send-off gathering for emigrants to America in the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. The "wake" referred to the fact that they were unlikely ever to come home again and to that extent were presumed dead. The "America" in this case could, however, be justified to the extent that many of them went to Canada, though often in transit to the USA

  62. On that logic, Póló, should you not say that you are from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland?

    The fact of the matter is that most words have more than one meaning, as do most names. We usually mean 'South Korea' when we say 'Korea'. We usually mean 'the People's Republic of China' when we say 'China'. People call me 'Lynne' even though there are thousands of other Lynnes that the name could refer to, and I don't object. So, on linguistic terms (rather than political ones), I have a hard time buying the ambiguity argument as a motivation for saying 'USA'. On political terms, it seems like different standards are set for reference to the USA sometimes just because it's a big and self-important country.

  63. No, Lynneguist, the official name of the State is "Ireland" (in the Constitution). We have fought a hard battle to have this accepted abroad. "Republic of Ireland" is used for the national soccer/football team.

    Regarding the main point of your post re "States", "America", "US", if "USA" is increasingly resorted to by foreigners, from whatever motivation, it will no doubt have to be taken into account by the linguistic community.

    It strikes me, as a non-linguist, that the linguistic and political categories are not always watertight.

    I am enjoying your site/blog, which I have just discovered and bookmarked.

  64. My point re ROI was just that 'Ireland' is ambiguous. It can refer to the island as well as the country--so if we're going to avoid ambiguities...

    Glad you're enjoying the site--hope to see more of you in the comments! :)

  65. @Fredorrarci: Sorry, I'm belated in following your link, but it is indeed a great and oh-so-topical sketch!

    (Nice to see Fry looking so young and svelte.)

  66. @Lynneguist: unfortunately ROI has colonial overtones when used to describe the State. Blame the UK FCO!

    On a more general point, can I take it that sbacl does not exclude Hiberno-English, at least in the comments? It is a rich field but might be a bit off-track for the majority of readers/commenters.

  67. Comments on other varieties of English are always welcome/interesting. We have a few active commenters from Ireland--the island and the country! :) And lots of readers/commenters from other parts of the world.

  68. Glad you liked the link, Lynneguist.

    "The Republic" is sometimes used within Ireland, in distinguishing it from Northern Ireland (or "the North", as it's often called) or from the island as a whole -- though "the South" is sometimes used for this purpose.

    For instance, you can see it on the listings for's live TV player. Beside each programme, it reads "ROI only", "Ireland only" (referring to the island) or "Worldwide".

    In my experience, "the Republic" is usually restricted to this type of distinction and to, as Póló notes, the national soccer team (which is, really, just another example of the distinction). "Ireland" will usually suffice for the twenty-six-county state, depending on context.

  69. As a Canadian, I consider myself a North American but never an American. I would use "the Americas" if I wanted to refer to the two continents as one entity.

    I use American only to refer to citizens/qualities of the USA, and if I say "America" at all, it is jokingly with a faux Puerto Rican accent ("I want to go to America"), or in imitation of an American.

  70. (Dallas, Texas, USA)

    Since we entered the Middle East, I notice a lot more "the US" or "US forces" than I had seen previously.

  71. Another Canadian here. I agree with Aviatrix - I would never want to be called an American. "American" functions as the demonym for citizens of "the States" and consequently, it can't be applied to me. I find it extremely offensive when (for example) Brits argue that they should be able to use that term to refer to me, given that I'm from North America.

    To refer to the country: I almost always say "the States", though will occasionally expand that to "the US" or "the United States" for clarity. "America" rings of patriotism to me and, I think, to most Canadians. (Consider "America the Beautiful"...) And so we avoid it at all costs. Probably because a big part of our identity is that we're not them!

    I wouldn't be surprised if Canadians are responsible for the spread of the nickname "the States". We are, after all, their neighbours - and have made up our minds on what to call them, even if no one else has. Using a consistent pattern with confidence - in a context where other expats are a little uncertain what term to use - likely carries some influence.

    I must say that I have a new sympathy for Americans, having read these comments. I've seen people from other countries roll their eyes when in a group everyone says where they're from (which country), but the Americans say which state. Perhaps it's because they just don't know how to refer to their country without embarrassing themselves. ;-)

  72. I've definitely experience this pattern on a few trips abroad=

    First encounter: "Where are you from?"
    "The US"
    "Well, that's obvious, what city/state?"

    Second encounter: "Where are you from?"
    "The US, Chicago."
    "Why do Americans always say their city/state when the rest of the world...(eyeroll at the provincial USian.)

    Gee, do you think that some people are just looking for excuses to roll their eyes? ;-)

  73. It's a complex situation for me. I was born and brought up in the USA, and am still officially a US citizen. But I'm permanently resident in the UK and consider myself essentially English, with no emotional ties to the USA.

    When asked outright where I come from, I usually do call it "the States". This is a deliberate choice, because saying "I was born in America" or "I come from America" sounds far too All-American Flag-Waving with Apple Pie and Baseball.

    "The States" is not exactly deprecating, but is at least noncommittal and distancing. I feel that I'm simply naming the country, not claiming any sort of patriotic emotion towards it.

    If the conversation continues, I'll use whatever name flows most easily in context, whether "the States", "America", or "the US".

  74. Perhaps our real problem here is that this nation has no proper name. Each state has a name, but there is no specific, exclusive name for the nation as a whole.

  75. Maybe we should borrow from Esperanto, where the name for the country in question is unambiguously Usono.

  76. Hello! I'm a new follower of your blog and find it both interesting and delightful! I have always wanted to visit the UK ever since I can remember, and finally got to this past summer for a about a month. I think I was meant to be British--I feel I was born in the wrong country. Perhaps there is a name for this disorder? I jest--but I am, at the very least, half serious.

    I normally say that I'm from the US...but I've noticed that my British online friends from England and Wales tend to say "America". I don't know if this means anything, but upon returning home from London, I found myself telling my American friends on my Facebook that I was back home in "the States." (Don't recall any of my new British friends that I studied with at Middlesex University ever using that short phrase. Maybe it's just breathing the air over there that does it?)

  77. "America the Beautiful", which I and a lot of my fellow-countrymen think ought to be the national anthem of the United States of Middle North America, Plus The Upper Western Bit And Some Islands Here And There, is actually rather less "patriotic" than many anthems, including by the way "O Canada" -- I yield to no one in my admiration for things Canadian, but the national anthem is not one of those things.

    The first verse, which is that all most people know, is mostly about the physical country rather than the abstraction. The last four lines of the second verse are my favorite, and I sometimes use them as an email signature, precisely because they are somewhat critical of my country (as am I). I quote them here, patriotically:

    America! America!
    God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
    Confirm thy soul in self-control,
    Thy liberty in law.

  78. I'm an AmE speaker who just wrapped up two years of study abroad in Belgium. I nearly always say "the States" to avoid sounding arrogant to my Latin American friends. I never found Canadians to care one way or the other if US citizens claim the entire continent.

    I also speak Belgian French (BFr?), and noted that my peer group of Belgian university students referred to the States as either "l'Amérique" or "les States." I think this can be explained by the prevalence of BrE as a second language education in continental Europe. I very rarely, if ever, heard the USA referred to as "les Etats-Unis" and absolutely never as "les Etats-Unis de l'Amérique" when discussing where someone is from. Once or twice, I heard "l'US" which sounds just about as awkward as it does in English, and nearly sounds like the French word for "west."

    Just an interesting tidbit!

  79. This question has always been easy for me.

    Where am I from? New York. And, as Spalding Gray says, "New York is not America. New York is an island off the coast of America."

    (I might feel differently if I were from the Bronx. And people from, say, Rochester - or, as we say, "upstate," meaning everything north of the Tappan Zee Bridge - might have the same objection to NY=NYC as Canadians and Brazilians have to America=USA. But I digress.)

    But I think Molly has it exactly right. It depends on context. When I'm outside the States, I use "the States" frequently, especially with my fellow Americans, and perhaps most often in the phrase "back to" or "back in the States." As in: "I'm going back to the States for Christmas." Or "I was back in the States a couple of weeks ago, and it was strange to hear people talking about the economy without ever mentioning Greece." I think the examples of military and military-influenced usages are based on the same implied understanding.

    Saying "the US" would seem strangely specific, because the shared context makes the modifier unnecessary, in much the same way that I imagine an Englishman would talk about watching "the football" rather than "an association football match." We're not unaware of the United Mexican States and the Papal States and the states that comprise India and Australia and the existence of matter in liquid and solid and gaseous states, but there's no chance our partners in conversation will understand us as referring to any states other than the United States of America.

    In the US, though, I would normally understand "the States" to be a particularizing phrase, used only in cases where it's important to distinguish between the nation - the US as a whole - and the states themselves, unless it's clear from context that the relevant distinction is between the States and someplace outside of the States. (I view this as consistent with Canadian usage, in which their national identity as not them establishes a context in which the latter distinction is always clear. "North American" is, to my knowledge, exclusively a Canadian term, meaning "the US and Canada" with a subtext of "forgot about us, eh?")

    PS to Kelley: If you've never found Canadians to care one way or the other if US citizens claim the entire continent, I can only presume you've never spent any material time in the company of Canadians. You may think Europeans have a chip on their collective shoulder about US cultural imperialism, but they've got nothing on our friends to the North.

  80. I'm Australian and have lived for extended periods in Malaysia, Sweden and Indonesia. The first time I heard "the States" I was in Malaysia and had no idea what the speaker was talking about as Malaysia has it's own states. I've only ever heard yanks use this term.

    But what really grinds my gears is when you ask an American where they are from and they simply reply with their state, or in some cases just their city! How arrogant to assume that everyone knows the composition of your country. Unless it's a well-known city like New York or LA, how dare you assume that I know where "Delaware" is or "Maryland". I really appreciate it when Americans first say their country (whether the USA, the States, the US or even America), before saying their state or city.

    I started noticing this when I was travelling the world back in 2008 and gradually would reply to such arrogant remarks with things like "never heard of that country", or when asked about where I'm from simply say my state, "Victoria" and let them figure out where that is.

    One woman said "I'm an Indiana girl" when I asked her where she was from when I was in Berlin. I replied, "well you don't look very Indian to me".

  81. After having this conversation more than once:
    Q. Where are you from?
    A. The United States.
    Q. (eyeroll) Well, yes, that's obvious. Where in America?

    I began to respond "the United States, near Washington, DC," which more than once led to: (eyeroll) "Why do Americans always name their town? Everybody else in the world..."

    When I traveled as a student, I found these occasional responses upsetting enough that I actually dreaded the "where are you from" question. (Yes, kind of pathetic, I know.)
    I've grown up since then, and realized that those who turn a friendly (at least on one side) encounter into an opportunity to confirm and share their favorite stereotypes about American arrogance and insularity are both rare and sometimes just a touch arrogant and insular themselves.

  82. As I live on an offshore island, I could argue that I live in England but not in Great Britain, as this is technically correct, although I wouldn't get upset if somebody said I was from Great Britain. If asked which country I live in I say Britain rather than the UK or United Kingdom, which describes a constitutional position but not a geographic location. I'm not that bothered about including or excluding people in Northern Ireland, who are divided into those who regard themselves as British anyway and those who regard themselves as Irish an living in an illegitimate entity.

  83. An overwhelming majority of the Twitter friends I connect with daily are tweeting to me in dialects of English other than Am. English (which I colloquially call 'Yanklish' when my lovely friends and I enjoy interesting dialect discussions.)

    As a US citizen, I don't have any great difficulty with the term 'The States', and I have also found myself using this term since living for brief periods in the UK and also seeing many UK/Irish/European Twitter friends using it. (I studied for 2 short summer terms in the UK [London] in 2009 and 2011.)

    I do have a bit of a problem with our country being called 'America'. Here's why. This was actually never the intended name of the country. And though they have likely come to loathe it (as it gets them confused with "us") Canadians and Mexicans are every bit as much Americans as we are. It was the entire 'New World', prior to the national boundaries that exist today that was named for Amerigo Vespucci, not we in the modern United States (including now also Hawiians, who aren't even on the continent at all.) The 'America' in the long name of our country (The United States of America) describes location (the United States of/on the American continent.) It was never originally meant to suggest The United States called America. The nation's original name (if you look it up) was The United States of North America. We are not the entire continent of North America, so this clearly described geographic location. We are simply a nation made up of a union of states called the United States. And it is [found on the continent] 'of North America'--only one of the countries located there. To refer to us as 'Americans' constitutes claiming the entire continent for ourselves, which I feel is wrong. Granted, 'United States' is a horrible name! What is one to call a citizen of a country called The United States? A United Statesian? Statesman? Statesperson? It's rather like calling someone a UKian or United Kingdomite. People in the UK have the same problem, and must reach for other more specific location descriptors like 'British' or 'English', or 'Norn Irish' (a favorite!) to describe themselves. Or simply say 'UK citizen' as I would say US citizen, but that sounds more like it belongs in a serious news broadcast. It's just not as smooth as saying Scottish, or Japanese. A citizen of the [then] British Empire could refer to 'the American colonies/ists' and be reasonably understood as meaning those belonging to the British Empire. This was not excluding the other colonies there (French, Spanish, &c.) as also being part of 'The Americas'; it was simply being used specific to Great Britain's interests. The Spanish may have referred to their own colonies/ists in 'The Americas', in the same way as also 'American colonies'. It didn't have to mean just us back then. Once we became an independent republic with this difficult, impersonal name of 'United States', located in N. America, things became a bit foggy and our continental location became our name. I think is wrong, as I said. We're not the only N. American country, and for that matter there are other 'Americas', as well, i.e. Central and South America. All are part of Amerigo's 'New World'. To call us 'The States' is more correct than to call us 'America'. I'm definitely an American (by location) but so are other people who now no longer use that continental identity, due to its coming to mean only people of the 'US'ofA. But then, they also have better country names, and can refer to themselves as Canadians and Mexicans, whereas we citizens of the US are at a loss to make any such lyrical thing out of our country's name.

  84. Hi I am an American and I live in Australia. I have on several occasions been confronted by Australians speaking to me about The United States or United States of America and referring to it as "The States". Frankly I am always a bit put off when I hear this. My experience has been that a typical and appropriate usage for this phrase is when One American is relating to another American in a casual conversation occurring outside the boarders of the United States of America. Also it is usually making reference to the continental United States and would exclude reference to Alaska and Hawaii. I don't know when it started however I know it was particularly prominent between military service personal stationed abroad and the phrase imparts a feeling of brotherhood and patriotism. At least that's how I see it. If you're a foreigner us this phrase to speak to Americans you should know many of them would find this inappropriate even if they are too polite to tell you.

  85. @Anonymous:

    Maybe Australians would also find it "inappropriate" to use "The States" to refer to the USA!

    The US isn't the only country in the world with states, you know.

  86. Another Canadian Perspective01 March, 2014 04:54

    Both my (American-living-in-Canada) mother and I (a full-fledged Canuck) use "The States." Like other posters have noted, I had it drilled into my head in school that "America" was improper because any North or South American is technically from "America". As such, it always rubs me the wrong way to hear "America" used for the country below us. Like the other, I use "the US" most for general use, but I think I'd be more inclined to use "the States" if referring to a visit (e.g. "I was in the States over the weekend.").

  87. I'm beginning to think this question is moot (AmE) as well as moot (BrE).

    As such I shall now list my originating location as Sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha.

    Alternatively I might say "I'm from the internet"

    Or perhaps more evasively, "It's where I'm going that really matters."

  88. This is interesting because I used to always call it 'the States' when I lived in Canada, but I've since unlearned that phrase since I moved to the UK. I almost never hear it here, and when I do it's generally said by an American or Canadian. 99% of the time, the people around me say 'America'.

  89. In addition to the other AusE responses here ill just add that when "the states" is used here to refer to the US, its usually prefaced with "'over in' the states".

    This is as others have mentioned due to the fact that Australia also has states, it is occasionally necessary to specifically discuss the states (to the exclusion of the territories), or the states as entities separate from the federal government.

    All this being said, most will still know what is meant by context relatively quickly. Other terms for the states (eg. the US) are preferred as they rid the conversation of ambiguity quicker.

  90. This is such a non-issue. America is the name of the country. There is only one America, and many United States, such as the United States of Brazil, or the United States of Mexico.

  91. Let me add another point of view. I myself use "the States" frequently when referring to the US and I think I prefer this due to the fact that it "rolls off the tongue" better than saying (as you pointed out in the post) "the-ewe-ess" or "the-ewe-ess-a". Too many vowels mushed together. However the reason for preferring "the States" to "America" is a different matter. I am Swedish, and in Sweden the common names for the USA is "U.S.A." (pronounced "uvesaa" with a v, in order to break up the vowels) or "Amerika", but saying "Amerika" in Swedish makes you sound as if you were emigrating to America from Småland in the nineteenth century. Few people under the age of fifty would use it. For me this connotation survives when I switch to English, so instead I use "the States". So that's a "second language" point of view.

  92. Surely Americans come from America, same as Australians come from Australia and Peruvians from Peruvia. Someone from 'The States' would surely be called a Statian or some such, much as someone from The Gambia is called a Gambian (in English). Since 'American' is surely overwhelmingly the adjective and the noun for a person (in English), I hazard that this could make Brits likely to use 'America' for where American people and things come from, as some US commenters have experienced.

    Although I sometimes use the shorthand 'the States' (and sometimes refer to the European mainland as 'the Continent'), in the mouth of an American it sounds false - I think because I don't believe they would refer to 'the States' in the States: Trump didn't trumpet "Make the States great again!" and I don't believe I've come across it in US films or on TV.

    Looking at Lynne's first table, I suspect that awareness (surely there is) of its informal status would lead to 'the States' appearing less frequently in writing than in speech. Regarding Brits using US and USA, which lead the way in the table, I did wonder whether they have been seduced by the more official UK versus Britain, EU versus Europe, and historically USSR versus Russia, into thinking that initialisms are more formal and possibly more correct. But then I realised they are also much shorter and easier to type! So I wouldn't be surprised if US/USA was more likely in writing but America in speech.

  93. I find it super arrogant of so many of you who seem to believe that people from the USA (aka Americans) are somehow the only people who aren't allowed to determine what to call themselves. Above, someone said Canada's identity involves NOT being American (which is fairly sad), and that they've led the way by using a clear and consistent alternative. Who put Canadians in charge of Americans? Or Australians who openly admit to badgering Americans, regardless of their answer? You people have Americans afraid and embarrassed to have to identify themselves! And yet it is Americans that are seen as the bullies on the world stage?!


    And I'm from New York, so I say New York, since the inevitable follow-up question to the country is where, specifically.

    And I've met plenty of Europeans and Asians in the US who tell me what city they're from.

    1. I'm saddened by the tone of your comment, Anonymous. Language, I firmly believe, should be used to communicate — not to express identity. This is difficult when a word can be used that way. All the more reason to avoid any insistence on the link.

      As long as it's clear to speaker and hearer (or writer and reader) that the US is what both sides have in mind, then America and American make for easy, efficient, frictionless communication.

      But is the hearer/readers live in or identify with some other country or region in the Americas, the context of communication may be utterly changed.

      Who put Canadians in charge of Americans?

      There's a difference between choosing a word to communicate a concept and forcing the world to accept that word. None of the Canadian posters demanded that you should change your language.

      Or Australians who openly admit to badgering Americans, regardless of their answer?

      Again, I think you've misread something. Australians use whatever word or phrase they feel comfortable with in communicating. For many of them, at least some of the time, that phrase is the States.

      OK, there are people in the world who say that you and your countrymen shouldn't use the word American to identify yourself. But I don't think any of the posters here are saying that.

    2. On reflection, there are contexts in which it can be legitimate to use a word such as American to express identity.

      For politicians — and, indeed, ordinary patriots — sense-of-identity use is appropriate and effective when addressing their fellow countrymen. Indeed, it can be positively desirable — invoking a sense of solidarity. Friction arises when speakers use the identity connotations when criticising their country. But then friction may what the speaker is choosing to provoke.

      It's a two-edged sword, though. People who object to some aspects of US government policy or US-based culture are apt to use American as a term of opprobrium — thus extending their prejudice to all things and people connected with the US, including nice guys like you.

      When talking to people who are not your fellow countrymen, I suggest, the communication should be frictionless if you say American to convey where you come from. OK the odd Australian may be momentarily thrown, being more used to hearing 'from the States', but any awkwardness is easily repaired. However, if you want to express your identity, some hearers/readers may feel more sympathetic if you say something explicit such as I regard myself as an American or My country, America ...

      I'm afraid the wording

      people from the USA (aka Americans)

      can come across as confrontational. It seems to muddle origin with identity in a context where readers may see the two as distinct.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)