"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

Is America a Continent?

I also 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 Vermonters and New Yorkers, but other people call themselves Kansans and Iowans, Kentuckians and Missourians, and Wisconsinites and New Hampshirites. 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 people Bay Staters (11). Although residents of Idaho are generally called Idahoans, residents of Moscow, Idaho had a local newspaper called The Daily Idahonian. And my editor, Joe, says he’s from Connecticut and his people never know what to call themselves. Connecticuter? Conncecticutian? Nutmegger? It’s a mess.

And then, once you get into the names of countries that are undergoing political strife, it becomes even trickier. For example, in 2012, the BBC News (12) and The Guardian (13) used the name Burma, and the Associated Press called the same country by its new name, Myanmar (14). But today, The Guardian also uses Myanmar, and the BBC says it is also “gradually moving toward calling the country Myanmar,” for example, on first mention referring to the country as “Myanmar, also known as Burma.”

The best advice I can give you is if you need to use denizen labels or 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.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

  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).




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.