"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 there a better term I could use?

Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read

American and Other Demonyms

Alain who is from Colombia and listens in Canada left a nice review on Apple Podcasts and also wrote, “I wonder if you could comment on the word ‘American’ when you are referring to the people of the United States. As a Colombian citizen I KNOW that me too, I am American, but at the same time I feel excluded when a person from the US says the word ‘American.’ [And he notes that I use the word American” quite often myself too.] Is it correct that The United States have appropriated this word for themselves while excluding Canadians and everything from Mexico to Patagonia?”

Alain is not alone in his thinking. Listeners from the United States have also reported having people from Brazil and Argentina upset with them for describing themselves as Americans, and I actually remember thinking about this topic when I was in South America over Christmas.

 I covered this topic in my book 101 Troublesome Words, and today, I’m going to expand on that topic.

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We, the people of the United States of America, 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, [and] 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.

First we’ll look at the recommendations of some style guides published in the United States, and then we’ll look at some style guides published in other countries and see what they all have to say.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.