The Grammarphobia Blog

Born in the USA

Q: I was taught that it’s presumptuous and arrogant to call our country America because this name covers two continents, North and South America. Our country is the United States of America. But since 9-11, I find that United States has virtually disappeared from radio and TV. EVERYONE now calls the country America. It makes me cringe whenever I hear this. I wish we’d get over it!

A: I usually refer to the country as the United States (or the US) because that’s more precise than calling it America. But I think it’s OK to refer to the country as America when precision doesn’t matter, especially if no one will take offense (say, a sensitive Argentine or Brazilian).

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “America” can refer to either the United States of America or the Americas (North, Central, and South). And an American, according to the two dictionaries, can be either a citizen of the US or an inhabitant of the Americas.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the noun “American,” which dates from the mid-1500s, originally referred to an inhabitant of the Americas, but it’s “Now chiefly: a native or citizen of the United States.”

“America,” as you may know, comes from the Latinized first name of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who navigated the coast of South America in 1501. The term first appeared in writing in 1507 on a map by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, according to the OED.

No, I don’t think it’s presumptuous or arrogant to refer to the United States as America or a US citizen as an American.

In fact, some Latin Americans who feel slighted by these usages often slight Canadians by referring to a US citizen as a norteamaricano instead of the clunkier, though more precise, Spanish term estadounidense.

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