Q: I have a question that three history teachers couldn’t answer. Why do we call Central and South America “Latin America”? And why are the inhabitants called “Latinos”? My only guess is that these areas were colonized by Spaniards and they spoke Latin for religious services.
A: The term “Latin” has been used since the 1700s “as a designation for the European peoples which speak languages descended from Latin,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED’s first example is from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788), by Edward Gibbon.
In writing of the First Crusade, Gibbon mentions “Godfrey of Bouillon, first King of Jerusalem” and the “Institutions of the French or Latin Kingdom.”
By extension, the term “Latin America” came to mean “those countries in Central and South America in which Spanish or Portuguese is the dominant language collectively,” the OED says.
The dictionary’s first example of “Latin America” used this way is from a 1912 issue of The Chambers Journal, a Scottish newspaper: “The amount of British capital invested in the countries of Latin-America is very great.”
One advantage of “Latin America” is that it’s a lot shorter than “Central and South America.” This is probably why it’s more popular too, with over 36 million hits in a Google search to under 2 million for the longer version.
As for “Latino,” the OED says, it refers to “a Latin-American inhabitant of the United States.” However, standard American dictionaries define “Latino” as either a Latin American or someone of Latin American origin living in the US.
The earliest example of “Latino” in the OED is from San Antonio: City in the Sun, a 1946 book by Green Peyton:
“The first program on the University’s list is an exchange of students with Latin America. That in itself would be a fresh intellectual experience for Texas, where Latinos are usually looked on as sinister specimens of an inferior race.”
If you’d like to read more, we answered a question a few years ago about whether Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court justice, is a “Latina” or a “Hispanic.”