US Americans

August 30, 2007 By: erik Category: Complaining, Geeky, Internet, Media, USA 848 views

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In the instantly ubiquitous video of Miss Teen South Carolina’s response to a fairly simple beauty contest question, she uses the phrase “US Americans”. If you’re in the minority that haven’t seen the video yet, go watch it, cry a little bit, and come back.

My first reaction to hearing the phrase “US Americans” was, “God, what an idiot! No one says that because it means the same thing and is completely redundant!” And I suspect, from what I’ve seen in comments around the web, that I’m not alone in this response. However, I would like to remind you US Americans that this phrase is not only not redundant, but actually appropriate and should be adopted by everyone.

To the rest of the world, the word “America” refers to a continent. And I really mean one continent. In Spain, children are taught that there are five continents. Here they are listed on the Spanish Wikipedia page for continente. Even the English version mentions how arbitrary the counting is.

The ambiguity of the word “american” never really hit me until I was waiting in a Spanish immigration office lobby filled with an assortment of shorter-than-me, darker skinned, obviously from Native American bloodline, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, Cubans, Brazilians, etc. When my number was called and I went up to the desk, the woman said, “Nacionalidad?” I replied, “Americano”, and she said, in a disgruntled government employee tone, “Yeah, so is everyone else around here. What country are you from?”

Luckily, Spanish has a solution to this conundrum. If any language would, it’d be Spanish, right? They have invented this beautiful seven-syllable word: estadounidense. Since Estados Unidos is Spanish for United States, estadounidense is kind of like “United Statesian”. I mainly love it because it contains the word “dense”. Like most nationality words, it’s both a noun and an adjective.

English has no good equivalent, and probably never will. “US Americans” is about as good as anyone can do. A couple years ago, on a web site that I used to frequent, the word “USian” grew in popularity and usage. It was initially repulsive to me, but I came to think it useful in writing. How it’s pronounced in still a mystery to me.

It wasn’t until I searched for “USian” just now that I found a long, beautiful discussion about this exact topic on (where else?) Wikipedia. They’ve really nailed the current state of vocabulary in Spain:

In Spain, people who have lived in the Western Hemisphere but now live in Spain may be called americanos. The Diccionario de la Lengua Española (Dictionary of the Spanish Language) published by the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), also gives estadounidense (United Stater) as one of the definitions of americano, meaning “someone from the United States or relating to the United States”. However, most spaniards, being influenced by the european media, still call U.S nationals “americans””.

I’m often introduced to people as “norte americano”, which also works. This almost always refers to the US and Canada, since everyone will assume that Spanish is not your first language if you are North American. Too bad for Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

So anyway, I just thought that this issue could use some awareness raising. We US Americans can be a little too US-centric sometimes. I bet that most US Americans have never once thought about this issue, but that most non-US Americans have. Hell, a fifth of us can’t even find the US on a map.

Hopefully this post will “help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future”.

 
  • http://www.isoglossia.com sgazzetti

    I recall stirring some people up when I first arrived in Argentina by making the same mistake. They don’t think it’s very funny for you to say, “in America…” there. Hey, you ARE IN America. It’s just bigger than you thought.

    So yes, I think we should adopt ‘U.S. Americans’ as far more descriptive than both ‘Americans’ and ‘North Americans’. Adding those extra two syllables ought to gain back a tiny amount of much needed humility in the eyes of the world.

    Totally unrelated question: what happened to comment preview?

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ erik

    The comment preview didn’t work for me this morning either, but then I rebooted (had some other problems too) and it’s working now. So I have no idea what was/is wrong with it. Rebooting isn’t a normal fix for javascript errors.

  • http://simonlitton.livejournal.com simon

    “English has no good equivalent”. Yes it does, at least in the UK: “Yank”.

    For me “American” is perfectly clear in meaning – I would never dream of calling a Mexican or Argentinian “American”. But then I wouldn’t see any need for referring to a German or Italian as “European”. I’d call them “German” or “Italian”. Would you talk about someone from Tuvalu as an “Oceanian”, or someone from Tasmania as an “Australasian”?

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ erik

    True. The meaning has become clear in English. The problem is that the yanks have stolen the name of their continent to use for their country. The equivalent would be if the Germans decided to start referring to their country as “Europe”, and their chancellor as the “Chancellor of Europe”. Even if it did catch on, the rest of the Europeans would be a little peeved every time they heard it. It’s just plain haughty.

  • Paul

    US Americans are way too US-centric, but we should not be blamed for calling ourselves “Americans”. Whenever geography WAS taught (the old days) in this country, it was consistently the 7 continent model. We didn’t think it funny that two of the continents had similar names, after all, many of us lived in North Dakota or South Dakota or North Carolina or South Carolina. On a test, “What is the name of your country” would solicit a fairly consistent “United States” north of the Mason-Dixon line, and “America” south of it. Elementary school girls on both sides of the line, determined to maintain their 4.0 grade averages, would say “The United States of America”, the only 100% safe answer. Brazil is in South America. Canada is in North America. Spain is in Europe. Not much to know, once you realize England isn’t really its own continent.

    Now you tell me that in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, “America” is the name of the combination of North and South America. OK, you can do it that way. A six continent model works almost as well as a seven. Your lack of interest in distinguishing between people from such disparate lattitudes doesn’t, however, make us more egocentric. We are certainly an overly-haughty people as it is. Your definition of continent – different from ours, and, I would argue, a minority definition – should not add to our load.

    I wonder – do the people in Latin America also think we disrespectfully claimed the name of our shared continent for the name of our country, as you Iberians do? Also, on only a slightly related note, how consistently would the people in a 200 mile radius around you answer the question “What is the name of your country?”

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ erik

    Now you tell me that in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, “America” is the name of the combination of North and South America.

    I’m fairly certain that it is this way across the rest of Europe, but I don’t know for sure.

    Your lack of interest in distinguishing between people from such disparate lattitudes doesnÂ’t, however, make us more egocentric.

    That bit about the continents was just thrown in as an aside. If the US had another name for South America that didn’t include ‘America’ (I’ve always liked the word ‘Patagonia’), then you’d have more of a point here. My reasoning would still apply to the other North American nations.

    Your definition of continent – different from ours, and, I would argue, a minority definition – should not add to our load.

    Again, the definition of continents is irrelevant to the haughty, egocentric, “naming your country after your continent” accusation.

    I wonder – do the people in Latin America also think we disrespectfully claimed the name of our shared continent for the name of our country, as you Iberians do?

    Certainly. More so, for sure. See sgazzetti’s comment above. As far as I know, the Iberians don’t really care that much. Most of the hostility I’ve seen is from anti-US-ego discussions on the Internet, and I think those were fueled mostly by Canucks and other Europeans, and I suspect that a fair amount of that was just trolling.

    Also, on only a slightly related note, how consistently would the people in a 200 mile radius around you answer the question “What is the name of your country?”

    This is kind of a straw man. You’re referring to the Basque Nationalists who prefer to say they live in the Basque Country, rather than in Spain. That’s a completely separate issue. If they demanded to call their local separate entity “Iberia”, it’d be the same thing.

    My point is that assuming the name of a large region for the name of your smaller region to the point where you change the definition to exclude people outside your small region is, whether it’s intended to be or not, perceived as being very egotistical and aloof. I don’t expect to change the definition or anyone’s habits, including my own, but spreading the understanding that a common word is perceived as offensive is how the zeitgeist evolves for the better.

  • http://simonlitton.livejournal.com simon

    “Now you tell me that in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, “America” is the name of the combination of North and South America.

    IÂ’m fairly certain that it is this way across the rest of Europe, but I donÂ’t know for sure.”

    For the record, I’d never heard of anyone referring to the combination of North America and South America as just “America” until I read this post. It’s news to me. I’m pretty sure that if I use the word America in a conversation with anyone I know, they’d understand it to mean the USA, not the entire landmass from Alaska to Chile.

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ erik

    Interesting. So it might be a post-imperial, Spanish-only phenomenon. That would make sense.

    Thanks, Simon.