Who’s American anyway? And when should we use the label?

As a North American who spent a year living in South America, I’m constantly doing a linguistic tap dance around the word “American,” trying not to use it to refer to something strictly from the U.S.

North of Mexico, many casually employ “American” as a noun or an adjective that refers solely to a person or item of the United States of America.

To others, though, particularly those in Latin America, “American” is a more encompassing label that describes any person, thing or idea with roots in the Americas — from Canada all the way to Argentina. The idea that United Statesians can claim “American” as ”ours” is a bit, well, self-important.

The problem is this:  Without the word “American,” English speakers lack a one-word noun that describes a citizen of the U.S., and we lack a simple adjective that describe items from the U.S.

If I don’t use the word “American” in this blog, I’ll be doing syntactic tangos all over the place.  (The AP stylebook has yet to sanction the use of “United Statesian”). So bear with me in my occasional and reluctant employment of the word “American” as a noun for “U.S. citizen” and as an adjective to describe something that is “of the U.S.” (American society, American culture, etc.).

Have a suggestion for how to approach this issue? Leave your comments.



3 Responses to “A note on language”

  1. 1 Mariana November 9, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I would simply go by the society of the United States, or the culture in the United States, a citizen of the United States, etc.
    But I agree with you that in the rush of wrapping up an idea or a text, you might end up using American as a shortcut. We should keep on making a buzz about the use of the word ‘American’ and one day, things will change.

  2. 2 julieturkewitz November 9, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Hi Mariana, thanks for the comment — now that I’ve been back in the U.S. for a while, I’m super conscious of the frequency with which ‘American’ is used in the specific U.S. sense (The New York Times and Obama, for example, both use it specifically to refer to the U.S.) I’ve actually resolved to get rid of ‘American’ in my writing/vocabulary and just use ‘U.S. citizen,’ instead, even if it feels bulkier. How did you find my blog?

    • 3 Mariana November 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm

      Hi Julie,
      You sent an email to Jessica Hyman at UVM with questions about Argentina and the Fulbright program. She forwarded your email to me, because I’m Argentinean. I’m not sure if you ever got my reply, but I got curious with your email and looked at your website and blog. I am a freelance photojournalist in Vermont, but born and raised in Argentina – till my 27s.
      I write in two blogs in Spanish (charlasimple.blogspot.com and vermontenespanol.blogspot.com) but all my freelance work is in English so far.

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