Volume X, Number 2, Fall 2014

"Sensitive America: The Continent, the Country, and Inter-American Relations" by Éva Eszter Szabó

Éva Eszter Szabó, PhD, Historian and Americanist, is assistant professor at the Department of American Studies, School of English and American Studies, Eötvös Lorand University, Budapest. Member of LASA, SHAFR, HAAS and HUSSE. Her fields of research include the history of inter-American relations, the correlation between U.S. foreign and immigration policies, Latino communities in the U.S., and global migration in global politics. Email:

Since the 1990s, when I got fascinated with Inter-American relations as a scholar, I have read a myriad of books, essays, articles, analyses and reports related to the field, and have been in contact with dozens of people inside and outside the academic world in various parts of the Western Hemisphere.1 A common thread of introductory book chapters and footnotes, and also of private conversations, social small talk, conference discussions and meetings or workshops, has been the heightened sensitivity surrounding the word America and its derivatives. Over the years, I have accumulated notes from encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, discussions and conversations with the acute attention of a Central European open and receptive to national sensitivities. Since the advent of massive public access to the Internet at the start of the millennium, and the appearance of online social networking services (Facebook, 2004) and video-sharing websites (YouTube, 2005), the arguments related to America have found new outlets, such as online groups, forums and blogs, reaching out practically to everyone who has something to say on the meanings of this word. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken pains to discuss this terminological issue, and those notes, started at the beginning of the 90s, have multiplied (Szabó 16-32). In inter-American relations, setting the terminological record straight2 has been a constant need with experts in scholarly societies and with laypeople over dinner tables and computer keyboards alike.

Before dismissing the sensitivity surrounding America as something trivial, or a dry topic of terminological hairsplitting, the acute listener will hear the echoes of the history of inter-American relations. Apparently, the meanings of America have been an organic part of the inter-American dialog in both formal and informal ways. For anyone to truly grasp the meaning of the ever-present passion related to terminology in the Western Hemisphere of the globe, they have to apply a multilingual, multicultural approach and a Pan-American perspective. This essay endeavors to do that through the lenses of an outsider who is very much of an insider by profession.

Feeling out Sensitive America

In a Pan-American context it is quick to get into dire straits by not taking into account the potential sensitivities of those present. No matter if it is over a cup of coffee in a circle of friends, or at a biennial conference meeting of the Latin American Studies Association in the United States, participants will soon find themselves being questioned, specifying meanings, giving explanations, being lectured and even apologizing for using the terminology imprecisely or insensitively. At the heart of the terminology problem lies the fact that the terms at our disposal reflect not only the tremendous variety of cultures and peoples living in North and South America, but also their pride and patriotism, their sense of belonging together and being different at the very same time. They reflect the ways the Western Hemisphere talks about itself and the multiple ways its parts relate to each other. In short, the use of terminology is a manifestation of nationalism and pan-nationalism, and as such, it provides an overview of the dynamics of inter-American relations. In this field, thorough background knowledge is essential to know who we include or exclude by using one term or another in a specific context. The Pan-American context can turn the most innocent comment into an incorrect and even offensive utterance sparking off heated arguments in scholarly circles and Facebook groups alike.

Over the years, I have fallen prey to such situations many times despite being familiar with the traps lying out there. For example, during a discussion related to U.S. foreign policy, Chilean historian Baldomero Estrada Turra, from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, indignantly asked me to clarify what I meant by Americans because he was not less American than those in Washington, D.C. I was happy to find that the North American adjective appeased him and I incorporated the term quite consciously into my writing. A reaction to that came from Texan sociologist and geographer, Allen Martin, the University of Texas, who very much appreciated how clearly I distinguished between North Americans and those living south of the borders. The counter reaction came from Mexican researcher Leticia Calderón Chelius, Insituto Mora, Mexico City, at a workshop of the American Studies Center of the Salzburg Seminar in Austria, telling me that she was just as North American as a Texan or a New Yorker and suggested using U.S. as an adjective instead. Obviously, U.S. is all right in the structure U.S. foreign policy or U.S. economy or U.S. citizens, but rather awkward in U.S. literature or in the U.S. people. So I often ended up using American again and the circle was complete. I learnt very quickly that unless oral explanations or footnoting of the terminology used are offered, one cannot be spared from such an outpouring of sensitivities caused by words with double, multiple or overlapping meanings.

More recently, in August 2013, as part of the terminological battle on the Internet, Washington, D.C., resident Chris Kirk, interactive editor of the left-leaning online current affairs and culture magazine Slate, commented on a terminology related experience in a bar while conversing with a young woman over a drink. Obviously, the incident hurt his feelings of nationalism deep enough and had an impact long-lasting enough to make it into the topic of an article:

Me: Where are you from?
Her: I’m American.
Me: What state?
Her: Columbia.
Me: So, South Carolina?
Her: No. Colombia, South America.
My new Colombian friend scolded me for misinterpreting “American.” Didn’t I realize, she lectured, how unfair, imperialistic, and U.S.-centric it is for U.S. people to steal the terms “America” and “American” to refer specifically to their country and themselves? She was American, she asserted. I’m American too, apparently, but only to the extent that I live on this continent.
I thought little of it—people are entitled to their perplexing opinions—until a friend complained a few weeks ago that she had suffered similar admonishment from a Costa Rican during a cruise. I asked some Latino friends about it, and they all reported that they personally believe it’s inappropriate for Americans to call themselves “American,” or at least know other Latinos who think this way. Americans have been attacked on this front for decades.
[…] I’ll call myself “United Statesian” when my friend from the Republic of Colombia calls herself a “Republican,” to avoid confusion with Columbia, South Carolina. To all critics of “America” as the U.S.: I know the situation isn’t ideal. I know the Constitution should really read “United States of Some Parts of America Plus Hawaii,” but that’s not how it reads, and lecturing Americans about it on cruises isn’t just pointless but also unfair. Americans have been calling their country “America” for more than two centuries. They will and should continue. Deal with it. (Kirk)

The overwhelming majority of the terminological battle on the Internet, of course, ranges between private opinions, sheer offenses, ignorance and pseudo-scientific analyses going back and forth, but the number of pages and people involved in the discussion is appalling; even more so, the intensity of their dedication to it. On YouTube alone, 15 videos have been uploaded that deal with the topic of “America is a continent, not a country”. The pieces have attracted the attention of altogether some 484,000 viewers as of November 25, 2014. Among these videos, the most popular and exhaustive on the issue has counted 225,060 viewers since August 2013 (“America: Country or Continent?”). The largest Facebook group dedicated to the debate entitled “America is not U.S.A. America is a Continent” has been liked by over 111,265 people as of November 25, 2014.

Consulting print and online encyclopedias and dictionaries on the meaning of America/American only adds fuel to the debate since both groups have plenty of sources supporting one or the other approach to America. Having consulted different editions of 32 such volumes, 21 gave account of both the country and the continental meanings (65.4%), while 11 referred to the continental meaning alone (34.4%). For example, contrary to my expectations, The Encyclopedia Americana (1992) belonged to this latter group. The recent battle over America on the Internet, however, is only the current chapter of a debate dating back to the mid-19th century. Ever since then, manifestations of sensitivity to the usage of America have been a permanent characteristic of inter-American relations.

Facts and Sensitivities

Critics often point out that the equation of America with the United States is quite ironic because, in fact, the word first appeared on 16th century maps designating the lands known today as Brazil in South America, the northeast coastline of which had been explored and named Mundus Novus, i.e., New World, in a letter by Amerigo Vespucci in 1504. Only with the birth of the United States was America also applied to the northern part of the continent, they claim (Winn 3). This argument, however, quickly fails historical scrutiny. Although America was originally applied only to the land mass of South America by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 (Lester), Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator extended America to all the land masses of the New World on his world map in 1538. Consequently, most European colonial powers relied on this denomination when referring to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries (Crane 107-116). The reconceptualization of the world along four continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, and America), however, proceeded slowly. It was only by the 17th century that all the global geographies included America as one of the four parts of the world. In Spanish, las Indias from Reinos Castellanos de Indias, i.e., the Indies was employed during the entire period of the colonial empire, from the 1490s up to the 1810s. The term reflected the conceptualization of the land masses as large islands rather than a continent. It was in the circles of Spanish-American, Creole intellectuals promoting the cause of independence that America as a term to denominate the continent emerged towards the end of the 18th century, on the eve of the wars of independence against the Spanish Empire (Lewis and Wigen 5).

As a result of the growth of geographical knowledge, the separate denomination of America Septentrionalis and America Meridionalis, i.e., North and South America, appeared first on the Blaeu map of America in 1621 (“Maps by W. and J. Blaeu”). Gradually, terms such as the continents of America, the American continents, the North American continent, the South American continent would make their way into everyday usage in most European languages by the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. The plural usage of America, i.e. the Americas, referring to the two subcontinents of the supercontinent, as we shall see, started to take hold in the English language in the mid-19th century only (“old world” Online Etymology Dictionary).

In contrast with English, however, European languages (e.g. German, Dutch, Italian, Russian, or Hungarian, just to mention a few) have kept America or the American continent as an equivalent of the plural usage. Although the Americas has its equivalents in Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and does appear in oral and written forms of mostly inter-American related communication (especially in translations from English), the term has not enjoyed widespread usage in these languages either (Glosbe.com). Whereas the continental meaning of America has continued in Europe and Latin America since the 16th century to date, in the United States it came to function first and foremost as a byname of the country from the 1760s-70s (Holloway; “United States” Britannica.com). In English, the continental meaning—already present in the oldest term, the New World, existent since the 1500s–– would move into the Western Hemisphere, existent since the 1550s, and the Americas (originating in the 1870s) (“old world” and “hemisphere” Online Etymology Dictionary). Although the singular continental meaning has not disappeared altogether, it came to be reserved and limited to specialized contexts, such as inter-American relations and Latin American studies. As of today, most English speakers would tell you that there is no continent like America in English.

The plural form the American continents/the Americas thus emerged partly as a result of the meaning of America being overburdened after the birth of the United States, and partly out of the geographic conceptualization of America as two continents, North and South America. Even though the fourfold continental system of the 17th century prevailed until the middle of the 19th century, world atlases reflecting the fivefold and sixfold schemes (including Europe, Asia, Africa, America or North America and South America, and finally Australia following 1788) were also published from the 18th century onwards. With the exploration of Antarctica in 1911, the six- and sevenfold continental systems started to compete for acceptance in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1950s, the sevenfold continental system had gained acceptance in the United States, whereas the sixfold scheme remained the point of reference in most of Europe, and the fivefold system tended to continue as the basis of schoolbooks on geography in Latin America (Lewis and Wigen 8, 10). Perhaps the most well-known representation of the fivefold system is the Olympic flag reflecting the union of the five inhabited continents and their athletes ever since 1913 (“Olympic Symbol”).

Even though there is definitely more than one correct answer to the question of how many continents there are on Earth, the singular or plural conceptualization of America can easily get us into predicaments depending on in which part of sensitive America we happen to be. As for my personal experiences, while in Europe or in Latin America using America for the land masses in the Western Hemisphere has never bothered anyone, in the United States this usage did earn me a good deal of lecturing. If I ever happened to utter the American continent, the conversation stopped and I was kindly requested to clarify what I meant. I was informed that America was not a single continent with a Northern and a Southern part (as we put it in Europe or in Latin America). In one version, I was told there were two continents in the Western Hemisphere constituted by North and South America, in another version there were three continents formed by North, Central and South America. U.S. geography books and school books, in fact, teach about seven continents, not six or five as in Europe and/or Latin America (Foster 6; Lewis and Wigen 1). Let me quote an email I got from Professor Allen Martin, University of Texas, regarding this issue in 2002. Apparently, he felt uneasy about my using the American continent in my PhD dissertation (emphasis added):

The American continents are more than the surface would imply. The geographer in me must note that continents are formed by plate motions and the boundaries between them. North America is formed by and a part of the Pacific plate and the connection extends to mid-Mexico. (Note that the confusion about Mexico being in North or Central America derives in part from this imperfection in the relation between political and geological coordination.) The Cocos plate extends from there to Panama (actually right at the canal); on the east side, the Caribbean plate extends from Yucatan to Columbia, and the Nazca plate borders all of South America, at least down to Santiago. Europe and Asia are part of the same enormous plate—the Eurasian plate. So en gard! (A tip of the hat to the French heritage of Haiti.) The people of the Americas are prepared to counter-attack over any reduction in our continents.

My Latin American readers, Leticia Calderón Chelius and Baldomero Estrada Turra from Mexico and Chile respectively, did not counter-attack, since in their version of the geographic truth, the American continent was the correct term. In the United States, however, based on another version of the geographic truth, the continental meaning of singular America has been relegated into the background to such an extent that most U.S. citizens are at a loss upon being exposed to it and resort to rectification immediately.

The coinage of the United States of America, however, still reflects the singular continental meaning. Following English America (1607-1707), the colonies of Great Britain in North America (1707-1783) were denominated British America and the British West Indies (Jefferson) until the Treaty of Paris concluded the American War of Independence in 1783. It was during the era of English America that the colonies in North America were sometimes referred to as states, first recorded in the 1630s (“state” Online Etymology Dictionary); while American (adjective) in the sense of “resident of North America of European (originally British) descent” was first recorded in the 1640s, and as a noun in 1765 (“American” Online Etymology Dictionary). The first publication containing the complete phrase United States of America was an anonymous political pamphlet signed by “A Planter” in The Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, VA, in April 1776 (A Planter’s Address 799). From the thirteen colonies of British America were born the United States of America as established by the final version of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, entitled “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America”. The States as a short form to refer to the United States of America appeared almost simultaneously, in 1777 (“state” Online Etymology Dictionary). Thus the name of the new political entity represented by the thirteen states was based on the British terminological tradition arising from the simple fact of their geographical location in the continent of America (Holloway), which at the time was conceptualized as one continent and not two continents making up the Americas. Neither the monopolization of the term nor imperial designs were contemplated by contemporary U.S. Americans upon denominating the newborn nation state the United States of America.

The fact that the term could be contested by other peoples living in the Western Hemisphere was unthinkable in the 1770s, and was definitely not considered by the Founding Fathers. Since the northeastern parts of the New World were called British America at the time and the lands south of it were called the Indies/las Indias, the United States of America was a natural development from the colonial term British America. U.S. American supporters of the country meaning often point out that after all, out of the 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere, the United States of America is the only country that officially contains the name of the continent, and as for the adjective, no better alternative3 is available (Rossi and Plano 14; Kirk; Pastor xi). Spanish American nationalism emerged some four decades after the American Revolution, as a result of the wars of independence against Spain in the 1810s. Its more comprehensive version, Latin American nationalism became full-fledged only by the late 19th century.

In fact, the very term Latin America/L’Amerique Latine, did not originate in the New World. It was coined by French statesman Michel Chevalier in the 1830s following his trip to Mexico and the United States. The idea of pan-Latinism emerged in his writings and it promoted the idea of a common Latin culture based on the Romance-language speaking background of “Latin Europe” (France, Spain, and Portugal). By the 1850s, Latin America had entered French and Spanish usage and it appeared on the maps. Napoleon III used the ideology of pan-Latinism to promote French imperialist schemes in Mexico in 1864-67. At the beginning of the 20th century, Latin America constituted the most general and popular term referring to the territories south of the United States, having competed with Ibero-America (for the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking territories) and Spanish-America (for the Spanish-speaking territories) for acceptance (Holloway; Skidmore and Smith, 355).

An interesting manifestation of the America debate and of emerging Latin American nationalism was the appearance of the phrase Our America/Nuestra América, originating from Cuban writer José Martí’s essay under the same title, published in New York City, in 1891 (Holden and Zolov, eds., 61-63). Our America has enjoyed popularity ever since then. It has often been resorted to in Spanish as a way of linguistic protest against the usage of America in the United States and as a separation both geographically and spiritually from the America represented by the Colossus of the North. Interestingly, the music awards Premio lo Nuestro/Our Award given to Latin American musicians and singers in Miami, in February each year since 1989, rhymes on Nuestra América.

Meanings behind Sensitivity

In the colonial and the revolutionary period of United States history, linguistic changes from “America, the continent” to “North American continent”, “America, the country” and “the American continents/the Americas” are clearly reflected in contemporary language usage as attested by literary texts and historical documents. When reading through The Norton Anthology of American Literature, such works of the colonial period as William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-1646), Roger Williams’ A Key to the Language of America (1643), Cotton Mather’s Nehemias Americanus (1702) or Robert Beverley’s The History and Present State of Virginia (1705) obviously reflect the continental and/or the subcontinental, i.e., North American meaning of America (Baym et al. 55; 81, 85; 230, 231, 236; 264, 265). However, William Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line, written in 1728, already attests to the linguistic settlement of the advances of geographical knowledge in everyday usage. His reference to “the northern American continent” clearly differentiates the subcontinental meaning from the continental one, which would also appear eight paragraphs later in the same text (emphasis added):

All that part of the northern American continent now under the dominion of the King of Great Britain and stretching quite as far as the Cape of Florida went at first under the general name of Virginia. (287)
As it happened some ages before to be the fashion to saunter to the Holy Land and go upon other Quixote adventures, so it was now grown the humor to take a trip to America. The Spaniards had lately discovered rich mines in their part of the West Indies, which made their maritime neighbors eager to do so too. (288)

Apparently, the continental and subcontinental meanings of America and the separate continental term North America coexisted in the 18th century and often functioned synonymously. The country meaning started taking shape in the decades leading to independence as, for example, Benjamin Franklin’s letter To Lord Kames illustrate from 1767:

[…] I apprehend some incidents are likely to revive the contest between the two countries. I fear it will be a mischievous one. It becomes a matter of great importance that clear ideas should be formed on solid principles, both in Britain and America, of the true political relation between them, and the mutual duties belonging to that relation (395).
But America, an immense territory, favoured by nature with all advantages of climate, soil, great navigable rivers, and lakes &c. must become a great country, populous and mighty. (397)

Perhaps the most lucid form of the multiple meaning embodied in America (as a continent/subcontinent and a country) can be found in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in January, 1776:

France and Spain never were, nor perhaps ever will be, our enemies as Americans, but as our being the subjects of Great Britain. […] Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. […] And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are countrymen; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which the division of street, town, and county do on the smaller ones; distinctions too limited for continental minds. Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province [Pennsylvania], are of English descent. Wherefore, I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England only, as being false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous. (620)
Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. […] As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain. (624)

The overlapping meaning of terms is further illustrated by Benjamin Franklin’s Advice to Such As Would Remove to America (1784) in the following way:

Many persons in Europe, having directly or by letters, expressed to the writer of this, who is well acquainted with North America, their desire of transporting and establishing themselves in that country; […] He finds it is imagined by numbers, that the inhabitants of North America are rich, capable of rewarding, and disposed to reward, all sorts of ingenuity; […] These are all wild imaginations; and those who go to America with expectations founded upon them will surely find themselves disappointed (379).
Hence the natural geniuses, that have arisen in America with such talents, have uniformly quitted that country for Europe, where they can be more suitably rewarded. […] These ideas prevailing more or less in all the United States, it cannot be worth any man’s while, who has a means of living at home, to expatriate himself, in hopes of obtaining a profitable civil office in America. (380)

Hence the natural geniuses, that have arisen in America with such talents, have uniformly quitted that country for Europe, where they can be more suitably rewarded. […] These ideas prevailing more or less in all the United States, it cannot be worth any man’s while, who has a means of living at home, to expatriate himself, in hopes of obtaining a profitable civil office in America (380).

Some literary pieces from the 1780s, however, reflect a growing clarity in the separation of the continental, subcontinental and country meaning of America. For example, in St. Jean de Crévecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer written in 1782, North America as the subcontinent, America as the country and Americans as the country’s citizens are clearly distinguished (Baym et al. 559-561, 563); Benjamin Franklin’s Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America published in 1784 comments on the tribes of the subcontinent known at the time (384-388); in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), the aboriginal “man of America” is divided into “the Indian of South America” and “the Indian of North America” (646, 647).

Upon exploring the terminology used in the relevant historical documents of inter-American relations, the changes in “the continent” versus “the country” meaning of America are much less conspicuous, and the terms used, in fact, take notice of the inherent double meaning of the word. Reading through documentary histories in search of terminological developments, tendencies within the inter-American vocabulary between the 1810s and the 2000s are easy to detect (Holden and Zolov, eds.; Godwin and Clor, eds.).

While in the national context America has become synonymous with the United States and the continental meaning has been largely transferred into other terms, in the international context the singular forms in America/the American continent/all America/the Continent show continuity from the English translation of Simón Bolívar’s writings in the 1820s, through the Olney Memorandum in 1895, up to the 1947 Rio Treaty referring to “the security of the Continent” (Holden and Zolov, eds.; Godwin and Clor, eds.). From the 1950s, however, these singular terms faded from English usage. As it has been pointed out earlier, in other European languages these terms have held on to date. Therefore, in the field of inter-American relations and Latin American studies, many authors feel the need to underline that “[i]n Latin America and the Hispanophone Caribbean, the word America refers to the Western Hemisphere as a whole” (Torres-Saillant and Hernández xx). There are even encyclopedia entries that take notice of this continental sensitivity under America (The Wordsworth Encyclopedia 1995; Columbia Encyclopedia 2000; Oxford Guide to British and American Culture 2001; Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe 2001).

Interestingly, the New World, the oldest of all the terms referring to America, available since Vespucci’s days in the 1500s, has survived to the present. It must be noted though that in the past decade or so the term has acquired an additional meaning referring to the post-9/11 world and the emerging new world order (Kupchan). The synonymous and all-embracing Western Hemisphere/the Hemisphere/our Hemisphere employed to denominate the American continents joined the singular terms as a synonym of America in the late 19th century, and it is mostly 20th century documents that contain it from Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904, up to the 1994 Summit of the Americas, and beyond (Holden and Zolov, eds.; Godwin and Clor, eds.). The term originates from the fact that the Americas constitute the only continental land masses that lie entirely within the Western Hemisphere of the Earth. Being based on geographical realities alone, its neutrality makes it a frequent choice of professional vocabulary in the United States. Other languages of the American continent and Europe also employ it (Glosbe.com), but it tends to appear mostly in translations or in the language usage of foreign political and academic circles related to inter-American relations. In languages other than English America or the American continent(s) are still preferred.

For about a century (1820s-1930s), the plural American continents/continents of America constituted popular terms as, for example, in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. Around the 1930s, however, the Americas became the standard term as seen in Sumner Welles’ The Time for Decision in 1933, or the 1994 Declaration of Principles of the Summit of the Americas (Holden and Zolov, eds.; Godwin and Clor, eds.). Since the 1930s, the Americas, the latest version of the plural continental forms, enjoys widespread usage in the inter-American relations vocabulary of the English-speaking world.

The Perception of Sensitive America

Documents of inter-American relations might reflect the terminology in vogue, but at the same time they also attest to the coexistence and survival of the terms and their meanings reviewed. As it happens with double meaning words, the context usually determines which layer of meaning is at play in a particular sentence. But when there is not much context, puzzles will be present and our own perceptions will prevail. One such puzzle that I witnessed was related to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Europe in 2001. At the time, the passages leading to Customs at U.S. airports were lined with posters saying “Keep foot and mouth disease out of America” written over a map of the United States. In March 2002, while transiting Miami International Airport on my way from Santo Domingo to Texas, I came across just one of these notices, but this particular one read “Keep foot and mouth disease out of North America.” The word North, however, did not figure in bold, capital letters but was written by hand, in blue ink. It must have been inserted by a transiting passenger or an employee of the airport who was so bothered by the meaning of America in this notice that he/she decided to take action in the middle of a busy airport corridor in accordance with his/her own perception of the meaning of America. The example perfectly illustrates how an important and sensitive issue the use of terms constitutes in the American continent.

Obviously, the application of terms is not simply context dependant linguistically, but culturally as well. Special attention must be paid to the international and national sensitivities involved. No surprise that in an inter-American context, politicians, business people and scholars from the United States often find themselves using America in its singular form to refer to the continent and refraining from using America as a synonym of the United States unless they are ready to face geography quizzes or indignation at U.S. arrogance.

Political and scholarly circles in the United States have had their rounds regarding the contradictions inherent in the usage of America. The complexity of the Latin American region, the frequent terminological overlaps, and the double meaning words prompted even the U.S. Department of State in 1959 to ask G. Etzel Pearcy, geographer of the Department of State, to clarify the nomenclature of geographic regions in Latin America. He gave an account of the double meaning of American as follows: “In the United States an ‘American’ usually means a citizen who lives somewhere between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel—or even Point Barrow. But in Europe a man from Buenos Aires is just as much an American as one from San Francisco” (Pearcy 390). In the contemporary academic world, however, the establishment of the American Studies Association in 1951 reflected the country meaning exclusively. As Janice Radway, President of the Association in the late 1990s emphasized:

[W]hat apparently didn’t cause any debate at [the] first organizational meeting [was] the question of whether or not to use the word “American”. (4)
[T]he early consensus in the field tended to elide the idea of the “American” with the culture of the United States. In so doing, it unconsciously erased the fact that other nations, groups, and territories had already staked their own quite distinctive claim to the concept and name, “American.” Indeed there would be no mention in the American Quarterly for decades [until the 1990s] of the earlier, alternative account of the concept of American culture articulated by José Martí in his important essay, “Nuestra America”. (6)

Despite the historical roots reviewed, it is the synonymous usage of America and the United States, plus the application of the adjective American in reference to a U.S citizen that has always brought about the most resentment in the terminology debate from José Martí’s times in the late 19th century up to the current battle on the Internet. Latin Americans, especially Spanish-speakers, and also Canadians have been reacting sensitively to what has been perceived as the monopolization of the term America by the United States.

For example, Juan González, Puerto Rican journalist residing in the United States, expressed that “[w]e all know the word ‘America’ has been unfairly appropriated by the people of the United States to refer to this country when it actually refers to the entire hemisphere” (xix-xx). In a similar fashion, Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar commented that U.S. citizens should realize that “this country has co-opted for itself the name ‘America’ and even our everyday language forces us to picture only one dimension of America” (qtd. in Winn 3).

History professor Peter Winn, Tufts University, remarked that the notion that the United States is America is one of the misconceptions that U.S. citizens have about “their” hemisphere. The effort to shock U.S. citizens into realizing the meaning of America has gotten stronger ever since the ethnic revival experienced in the 1980s. A perfect example of such an effort is described by Winn in the following way:

In April 1987, strollers in Times Square who looked up to read the neon news headlines were startled to see a computer animation map of the United States across which was written: THIS IS NOT AMERICA. As they watched, the images changed. The word AMERICA expanded to fill the screen, and the ‘R’ became a rotating map of both Americas—North and South. (3)

This provocative forty-five-second computer animation entitled “Logo for America” was the work of Alfredo Jaar, Chilean artist. In August 2014, “Logo for America” was reloaded (“Midnight Moment” YouTube). Jaar commented on the occasion as follows: “The fact that my work’s message is still relevant today means that the general public’s perception of the US–America relationship has stagnated for twenty-seven years, if not worsened” (qtd. in Blitzer). The task awaiting U.S. Americans is, in fact, to find their way back to the double meaning of America and integrate the view of the United States IN America into their worldview.

Pan-sensitivity and Pan-Americanism

The current terminological battle over America is but a manifestation of the stagnating perception of the U.S.–American continent relationship. Due to the breakthroughs in tele-communication it may seem to be more intensive and it certainly has become more visible, but the essential arguments have remained essentially the same since José Martí’s publication of Our America. Chris Kirk very much hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that “[t]he idea of “America” as a continent doesn’t have many practical applications beyond soccer tournaments and plate tectonics”. The United States perceives U.S.–American relations through the double meaning of America. The continental meaning has gained the upper hand in prolonged times of crises, such as the Second World War period, when the United States thought continentally (as exemplified by the Good Neighbor policy launched in 1933). In the absence of long periods of crises, however, the country meaning has prevailed in the United States.

What makes America sensitive, is the underlying value system as related to nationalism and the different attitudes surrounding pan-nationalism. Pan-Angloism, as proposed by Sinclair Kennedy in The Pan-Angles in 1914, failed to develop into a common point of reference in the English-speaking world. True, Anglo-America does represent a cultural and linguistic community, but it has not developed into a pan-national movement in its own right. As a result, the U.S. American attitude to pan-nationalism has been essentially different from that of Latin Americans. Even though the United States has spearheaded the Pan-American movement ever since the First International Conference of American States in Washington, D.C., (1889), Pan-Americanism has not embodied more than geographical proximity and collective defense based on geopolitics (Hamilton; Padilla). As Andrew Hamilton emphasizes, “[i]t is fallacious to contend that the Americas are united simply because of hemispheric proximity.” As the battle over America illustrates, “the continent” versus “the country” meaning stirs up the sensitivities of both parties based on their own versions of nationalism. U.S. American nationalism and Latin American nationalism, however, have been more conducive to pan-sensitivity than Pan-Americanism.

Pan-Americanism has lacked the strongest unifying force of macro-nationalism, namely racial pride and consciousness. It has had little to offer since it has not been based on a shared value system of race, ethnicity, language, and culture (Hamilton). In this respect, true Pan-Americanism may never be reached. Upgrading it along solidarity and inclusion, however, can improve its effectiveness. Institutionally, Pan-Americanism is U.S.-made. Value system-wise, however, it is predominantly Spanish-American with Bolivarian roots, dating back to the 1820s (Padilla), and broadening into Latin-Americanism by the late 19th century. No surprise it is Spanish-speakers who constitute the most active discussants of the terminology issue and expect the U.S. American usage of America to give account of the continental dimension of the word, too. Referring back to Kirk, whereas “the idea of ‘America’ as a continent” is something remote to U.S. Americans, Latin Americans, and especially the Spanish-speakers within that group, have a marked continental identification based not only on language and culture, but on a shared value of mixed racial identity. What makes the debate on America especially exciting in the 21st century is the impact that U.S. Latinos can have on the broadening of U.S. American perceptions of the U.S.–American continent relations in the future.

The debate over America is in many ways a debate about inclusion: just as much the inclusion of the idea of America in the idea of the United States, as the inclusion of the United States in the idea of the continent. The good news to U.S. Americans and Latin Americans is that sensitive America takes them closer to a higher level of Pan-Americanism than insensitive America. So, on with the debate!


Works Cited



1 The countries and regions thus covered include Canada, the United States (NY, PA, DC, VA, FL, KS, TX, OR, CO, NV, AZ), Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Chile. The author self-identifies as an Americanist in the continental sense of the word with a PhD in History, an MA in American Studies and an MA in Hispanic Studies. Also, she extends her apologies for potentially hurting anyone’s continental or country sensitivities.

2 For the purpose of this paper, the terms America/the American continent/the Western Hemisphere (noun) and American (adjective) will refer to the continental meaning, while the United States (noun) and U.S. American/ U.S. (adjective) to the country meaning.

3 Personally, I vote for U.S. American since it is analogous with Latin American or Spanish American/Hispanic American, African American, etc.

My collection of alternatives of American ranging from the most to the least popular include the following: American, United States/U.S., North American, U.S. American, United States of American, United Statesian, Usian/US-ian, Usanian/USA-nian, Usan, Usonian; Columbian, Columbard, Colonican, Fredonian, Frede (also see Kirk). North American is preferred in South American countries, but less in Central America and much less in Mexico. Note that Spanish speakers—most typically Mexicans—can also term Americans as anglos, which can help them to bypass the fact that geographically speaking Mexicans are North Americans themselves. Similarly, the words gringo and yanqui/yankee are also used all over the continent to refer to U.S. Americans, but these expressions are prone to have derogative connotations. Even though Spanish-speakers may also resort to americano, it is more of an exception than the rule. The overwhelming majority of Spanish-speakers use estadounidense or norteamericano instead.

As for languages other than English, some can form an adjective from the United States (Italian statunitense; Portuguese estado-unidense; French étatsunien; Russian штатовский; Hungarian egyesült államokbeli). When checking comparative official translation samples, however, the direct equivalents of American rule out everything else in these languages too. Nowhere is the term more well-established and widespread in everyday language usage than in Spanish, estadounidense (with Italian second on the list) (Glosbe.com).