You may have noticed, Dear Reader, that in my posts I do not use the term “American” to describe people from the United States. I try to say “North American” or “people from the US.” This is because many Latin Americans I have spoken with are slightly miffed that we do not consider them “American,” because really, we are all Americans. North American, Central American, South American, Latin American…whatever kind, we are all from the same big continent of America. At least, that is how many people not from the US view it. Students in Europe and Latin America, among other places, often learn that there are six continents instead of seven.
I think it’s really fascinating, because I was always taught from elementary school that there are seven continents. It was a fact. However, when I went to Morocco, my Arabic teacher there was teaching me the names of the continents and only told me six, because they considered America one big continent—there was no separation of North and South. That was the first time this “fact” I had learned was challenged.
The second time was when I told a Colombian that we (in the US) consider North America and South America to be two separate continents. He was shocked and said, “You consider yourselves a separate continent?!” Yes, indeed we do.
However, it has not always been that way. I decided to delve into the history of geography a bit, and I discovered that before World War II, the general view in the States was that America was all one continent. According to The Myth of Continents: a Critique of Metageography,
“While it might seem surprising to find North and South America still joined into a single continent in a book published in the United States in 1937, such a notion remained fairly common until World War II. […] By the 1950s, however, virtually all American geographers had come to insist that the visually distinct landmasses of North and South America deserved separate designations.”
There are different views on how many continents there are. Some people combine Europe and Asia to make the single continent of Eurasia and some make America one continent. Sometimes in English we say the “Americas,” pluralizing it, to describe the whole continent. If it interests you, the Reader can read more about the division of the continents here on Wikipedia.
Back to the term. In Spanish, if I say “Americano,” that term can refer to any person from North, South, or Central America. So if I want to describe my nationality, I say “estadounidense,” which really doesn’t have an English translation. It would be something like “United Statesian.” Latin Americans tend to consider “American” or “Americano” a general term to describe everyone from the continent.
I’m not saying that using the term “American” to describe people from the United States is wrong or incorrect, necessarily, but as my views on geography have expanded somewhat, it does make me think that we perhaps need a different English term to describe our nationality.