What does it mean to be American?

Reenactors image from Revolutionary War Reenacting

Yesterday was the annual celebration of the independence of the United States, a patriotic day to celebrate all things American. While I was taking pride in my country, though, I started to think about what it means to be American.

No, I’m not talking about our values or culture or the ideas we were founded on. I’m talking about the literal definition of that word – “American”. What does that word mean? It turns out, it means different things to different people.

Here in the United States, “American” simply means “people and things from the United States”. For example, I am an American, grilled hot dogs are a classic American food, and Washington, D.C. is the American national capital. However, if I were to travel to Argentina, people would be legitimately offended and upset by my using the word “American” that way.

What many people in the United States don’t realize is that people in Central and South America consider themselves “Americans” too. After all, the term “America” (or sometimes “The Americas”) is also a continental term, referring to the giant land mass encompassing everything from Canada to Chile. The United States of America is just one country in North America, and together with South America there are 35 independent countries and 25 territories that could legitimately call themselves “American”.

If somebody from Peru were to travel to the United States and call himself an “American”, we would be confused, because we are just so used to using the word “American” to refer to ourselves pretty much exclusively. Conversely, the fact that we use the words “America” and “American” to refer to the United States alone is seen by many in Latin America as being at best culturally insensitive and at worst a symbol of perceived U.S. imperialism.

How did this situation come about? Why do we have a name that is shared by two continents, and a country on one of those continents? And how did “American” come to be used in the United States as a national term, and by other countries as a regional term?

Let’s start at the very beginning. I’m sure most of you are aware that when Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, he thought he had reached some islands off the coast of Asia. Of course, it wouldn’t be long before other explorers figured out that Columbus was wrong, and that what he had actually discovered was a new continent. The man who finally made that mental connection was fellow Italian sailor Amerigo Vespucci. In 1507, German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller named the new continent “America” in Vespucci’s honor.

The map that started it all, currently housed in the Library of Congress

The map that started it all, currently housed in the Library of Congress

A close-up showing the first ever use of the name "America"

A close-up showing the first ever use of the name “America”

It would be later generations of mapmakers who decided to divide America into a North and a South continent.

Fast-forward to 1776, and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The full title of that open letter explaining the decision to break away from Great Britain was “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America” – coining the name of my home country. However, the context of the document makes it clear that this newly-independent United States was NOT the United States that we understand today. The text reads, “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States”. Note the plural there. States. As in, multiple sovereign and independent countries.

What most people today don’t realize was that the United States of America was originally understood to be an alliance between countries that broke away from Great Britain together. That’s why it was given such an unwieldy name. It was a name of an international alliance that happened to be located in North America – kind of like the “Association of Southeast Asian Nations” or the “European Union”.

In fact, the European Union is a great analogy of how the United States used to function and understand itself. Just like the European Union is legally an international organization but functionally has a federal-government-like structure that has power over its member nations, so too the early United States saw itself in the plural. People said “These United States are…”, and everyday citizens saw themselves as New Yorkers or North Carolinians or Missourians. This is a large part of why the civil war happened.

Well, that and slavery.

Slavery being another, very large part.

After all, if Virginia is a sovereign state that voluntarily chose to join an alliance with Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other sovereign states like it, why couldn’t it decide to leave this alliance?

The reason we now see ourselves as a single, unified nation (“The United States is…”) has everything to do with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. People forget this, but many in the northern Union states didn’t want to fight the Civil War. Lincoln and his supporters justified the war to the people by promoting a new idea: nationalism. The stars-and-stripes, previously used primarily as a military and naval marker, became a powerful symbol among civilians to show that they supported the Union. Pro-war northern propaganda blended the ideas of Union, God, and the abolition of slavery together as part of a new national identity that should be held in common by all. Union victory guaranteed that this picture of the United States not as an alliance but as a nation would take hold as the dominant legal, political, and social framework we have had ever since.

This brings me back to the peculiarity that when I call myself an “American”, I mean “I am a citizen of the United States”. While our Founding Fathers included territories that were not a part of the United States when they used the word “American”, during and after the Civil War the term became a national identifier. In the English language, “American” came to almost exclusively be used to mean “of or pertaining to the United States of America”. After all, if we are supposed to be one nation, what else are we going to call ourselves? “United Statesian?” Some people have suggested that term, but it just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

On the other hand, this linguistic oddity evolved in the United States but not in Latin America. Latin America was not really affected all that much by our Civil War, and kept right on using “American” in the continental sense, as they still do today.

So, how does a native Spanish-speaker specify someone is from the United States instead of just somebody from anywhere in the Americas? We have no word for that in English, but in Spanish they do have a word that specifically means “from the United States”: estadounidense. This word is simple, precise, and does the job quite nicely. Well, except for the fact that the U.S.A. isn’t the only country that uses “United States” in its name – Mexico’s full name is “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”, or “United Mexican States” in English. Theoretically, estadounidense could also refer to Mexico. Fortunately, unlike the U.S.A., Mexico does have a perfectly acceptable and not-confusing alternate name – Mexico. Spanish speakers simply refer to people from Mexico as “Mexicanos“, Mexicans, reserving estadounidense exclusively for the United States that I live in.

I guess the moral of this story is that when travelling in Latin America, say “estadounidense“, and when travelling in the United States, say “American”. Hopefully, in this way we can avoid any unintended confusion or offense.

Still not sure what to do with Captain America, though...

Still not sure what to do with Captain America, though…

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