Debunking the term “American”

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.

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4 thoughts on “Debunking the term “American”

  1. ya its funny..how things change with time ( like the meaning of a word or word itself) . Here in asia if you call someone asian it means you are referring to chinese or chinese look alike. I never put my more thoughts into it until reading this :-)

  2. Other than the fact that I was born in the US, I don’t have a dog in this fight, however, if a small, thin, swampy strip of land connecting North and South America makes them one continent, surely “Eurafricasia” would be the appropriate label for the competing major landmass from which humans originated. This is even more apt given that the Strait of Gibraltar is slowly closing and indeed would constitute a land bridge were sea levels to fall by 100m or so (who knows, maybe with enough “climate change” we’ll precipitate an ice age?). And to boggle one’s mind further, should we have another ice age, what would we then call the two aggregated continents when joined by the Bering land bridge?

    I would also disagree with you about the term “americano” being generally applicable to residents of both North and South America. In my travels in Colombia and Peru, “americano” was the generally accepted term for Anglo North American i.e. the US and Canada (I’m sure the Canadians reading this will register some annoyance at this concept). The more informal and common term — used quite frequently and always with good humor — is “gringo”. I’ve never ever heard a Latin American refer to himself as “americano” — always “peruano”, “mexicano”, or “colombiano”.

  3. Wikipedia also points out that, were the Strait of Gibraltar to close, it would only take about a thousand years for the Mediterranean basin to evaporate — a geological event which would make very difficult the arbitrary delineation between the European, African, and Asian continental masses.

  4. A few more postscripts before I move on:

    – In Spanish class and textbooks, we were taught the terms “norteamericano” and “sudamericano”, and less commonly, “centroamericano”. However, outside the classroom I don’t think I have ever heard these terms used.

    – Wikipedia apparently prefers “Afro-Eurasia” over my “Eurafricasia”. Harrumph!

    – I’d be very curious to hear if your experience with Ghanaian textbooks mirrored that of Moroccan text books. Just hazarding a guess, though, I suspect the Moroccan texts are what they are because they are much more heavily influenced by the Spanish weltanschauung.

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