"American" and Other Demonyms

People in South America and Central America sometimes complain when I refer to citizens of the U.S. as “Americans.” Is it offensive to call ourselves American?

Mignon Fogarty,
October 4, 2012
Episode #338


In a previous episode, I told you how Noah Webster is responsible for some of the differences between British English and American English, and I used the word “American” a bunch of times. I know from experience that when I do that, I get complaints from South Americans and Central Americans who think it’s horrible that residents of the United States call themselves Americans, since people anywhere on the American continents are actually Americans. I covered this topic in my book 101 Troublesome Words, and today, I’m going to expand on that topic.

We, the people, have been calling ourselves Americans since before our country was even founded (as have others), and “American” is the only single word we have to refer to citizens of the United States of America.

This isn’t a new problem. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says the first objection occurred in 1791 (1), and in his 1963 book, The American Language, H. L. Mencken wrote, “As everyone knows, the right of Americans to be so called is frequently challenged, especially in Latin America, but so far, no plausible substitute has been devised, though many have been proposed, e.g., Unisians, United-statesians, Columbards (2).”

Although all people of the American continents are actually Americans, most readers in the United States, Canada, and Europe assume that an American is a United States citizen since that’s how the word is most commonly used.

American Style Guides Support “American” to Mean a US Citizen

The Associated Press Stylebook (3) and Garner’s Modern American Usage (4) both back the use of “American” to mean a United States citizen, and despite recording all the discord about the term, Merriam-Webster says “American” to mean a citizen of the United States is “fully established.” (Surprisingly, the Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t seem to address the issue, at least I couldn’t find an entry.)

British and Canadian Style Guides Support “American” to Mean a US Citizen

Lest you think I’m biasing my sources by using American books, the style guide of The Guardian, a UK paper, allows it (5), and the Canadian style guide from the Public Works and Government Services in Canada doesn’t address the topic directly, but uses “American” throughout its guide to refer to United States citizens (6).

The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. ? Benjamin Franklin

What Should You Do?

My conclusion is that even though it’s not literally correct, it’s OK to use “American” to refer to a citizen of the United States of America, at least if you’re in an English-speaking country, because it’s widely accepted as the standard, people know what it means, and no better term exists.

Is America a Continent?

I discovered two peripheral, but fascinating things while I was researching this topic that I want to share with you. First, I was surprised to learn that the concept of what makes a continent isn’t the same everywhere in the world. In the United States, we’re taught that there are seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America (7). So I was thinking that maybe it’s a little disingenuous for people to complain that they’re all Americans when I’d use the continent names and think of them as North Americans or South Americans. It would be kind of like West Virginians objecting to residents of the state of Virginia calling themselves Virginians. 

However, apparently, in other parts of the world, people are taught that North America and South America are one continent—America—and thus there are only six continents (8). If you’re thinking about continent labels, it really is legitimate to say we’re all Americans. Furthermore, some systems combine Europe and Asia into one big Eurasian continent and teach that there are only five continents.

Other Denizen Names: It’s a Mess Everywhere!

The second interesting thing I discovered is what an illogical mess demonyms can be in general.

“Demonyn” is the word that names an inhabitant, so “Nevadan” is the demonym for people who live in Nevada; and “denizen” is the name for a person who lives somewhere, so I am a denizen of Nevada.

Weak Rules and Lots of Exceptions

There seems to be no reason why people call themselves certain things. We have Vermonter and New Yorker, but Kansan and Iowan, and Kentuckian and Missourian, and Wisconsinite and New Hampshirite. People have tried to come up with rules for which ending a demonym will take given its spelling, such as if the name ends in “-ia,” add an “n,” which gives us Philadelphian, and if a name ends in “-o,” add an “-an,” giving us Chicagoan (2), but there are a lot of exceptions.

Further, it’s easy to find instances in which people have two different official or accepted names. For example, the United States Government Printing Office (9) calls people of Indiana Indianians, but the state of Indiana says the official name for residents is Hoosiers (9). The feds call Massachusetts residents Massachusettsans, but the state itself calls its people Bay Staters (11).

And then, once you get into the names of countries that are undergoing political strife, it becomes even trickier. For example, the BBC News (12) and The Guardian (13) use the old name, Burma, whereas the Associated Press (14) uses the new name, Myanmar, and I’m certain there are people who hate both those names.

The best advice I can give you is if you need to use denizen labels and even country names and you’re writing for a local audience, look up what the accepted name is in the region. If you’re writing for a national or international audience, check a major style guide for accepted usage.

  1. “America, American” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994, p. 87.
  2. Mencken, H.L. The American Language, The fourth edition and two supplements, abridged. New York: Knopf, 1963, p. 680-1.
  3. “American.” Associated Press Stylebook. http://www.apstylebook.com/online/?do=entry&id=133&src=AE (accessed September 15, 2012).
  4. Garner, B. “American.” Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 41.
  5. Marsh, D. and Hodsdon, A. (eds). “American.” Style Guide. Guardian Books. http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/a (accessed September 15, 2012).
  6. The Canadian Style. Public Words and Government Services Canada http://btb.termiumplus.gc.ca (accessed September 18, 2012).
  7. Canright, S. (Ed.). “Continent.” Picture Dictionary. NASA http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/dictionary/Continent.html (accessed September 15, 2012).
  8. “How Many Continents Are There?” National Geographic. http://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/faq/geography.html (accessed September 15, 2012).
  9. “Nationalities, etc.” U. S. Government Printing Office Style Manual. (2008) http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008/pdf/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008-7.pdf (accessed September 14, 2012).
  10. “Hoosier,” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoosier (accessed September 14, 2012).
  11. “Designation of citizens of the commonwealth,” Massachusettes Laws, Section 35. http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleI/Chapter2/Section35 (accessed September 15, 2012).
  12. "Should It Be Burma or Myanmar?” BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7013943.stm (accessed September 15, 2012).
  13. Marsh, D. and Hodsdon, A. (Eds.). “Burma.” Style Guide. Guardian Books. http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/b (accessed September 15, 2012).
  14. “Myanmar.” Associated Press Stylebook. http://www.apstylebook.com/online/?do=entry&id=4013&src=AE (accessed September 15, 2012).

The Flag of the United States image, Sam Howzit at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.