Imagine a conversation that goes like this:
A: Hi, my name’s Angie. What’s yours?
J: I’m Jorge. Pleased to meet you.
A: Where are you from Jorge?
J: I’m Argentine. How about you?
A: I’m American!
J: Ummm… so am I. Are you North American?
A: I guess so. I’m from the United States.
J: Ahhh… you are a United Statesian.
Yep, that’s a translation of a the kind of conversation I had with Argentines when I first moved to Buenos Aires.
I learned pretty quickly to offer, “Soy estadounidense” instead of “Soy americana.”
Today, I might also reply, “Soy norteamericana” because, after living in Ecuador, I learned that it was a great alternative to describing where I come from. Obviously, this response leaves a little doubt. Few people thought I was from Mexico – my accent was a dead give away – but they assumed either Canada or the United States. If they wanted to know more, they would ask.
Using estadounidense or norte americana let the other person know that I got it: my US culture did not own the word American… especially when speaking Spanish.
What is an American?
So why do we call ourselves American? It’s simple and complicated at the same time.
The simple explanation is that we have been called Americans our entire lives. If you are from my generation, you might have grown up singing America the Beautiful in school. It describes the beauty of the United States, not Canada, Ecuador, or Brasil. Everything around us tells us that we are American. American as apple pie.
Even my time spent overseas as a child in places like England and the Philippines pounded in the idea that we were Americans, always proud and patriotic. We celebrated the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Memorial Day (with BBQs mind you, not visits to soldier’s graves) with complete gusto. When asked where I was from, the answer would be America. I was American.
However, I started to question myself after living in other countries in the Americas. I wanted to know more. That’s where the complicated answer comes in.
History of the word American
The word American was first used around 1570 by Europeans to refer to the indigenous peoples living in the Americas. In about 1640, a new idea started to take hold, that an American was a resident of North America and of European descent. And yet, the word Native American didn’t come into existence until 1765. So there was likely confusion, even in the beginning, as to exactly what the word American meant.
Even in Spanish, American sometimes means that is is something from the United States. A great example of this is the term Americano. Used to refer to a weaker brew of coffee of the kind that Latin Americans believed was a US staple, it first appeared around 1950.
And if you are studying Spanish in a classroom or with an app like Duolingo, you’ll learn that everyone from the United States is “un americano” or “una americana” not “un estadounidense.”
However, according to the Real Academia Española, an institution that protects and maintains the Spanish language, the word America should no longer refer to the United States:
Of course, they are referring to the Spanish language, not English. But it should make us beg the question, why not use a different word to describe ourselves?
A New Term – United-Statesian
While this is not yet a big conversation in the United States, I predict that it will be.
As we continue to evolve towards a global economy and as the internet erases physical borders, making information more readily available to all, we will find ourselves needing to know exactly who we are in ways that don’t deny others their identity.
Is United-Statesian even a proper word?
While considered non-standard, the word United-Statesian does have a history of use. Check out this description found in The Rob Roy on the Baltic written by John MacGregor in 1867:
For this blue-book is a sort of school primer, intended to teach the Danes how to pronounce the United-Statesian language, and perhaps we English may have a lesson, too.
At the turn of this century, in 2005, it was used by Greg Scott, editor of Cowboy Poetry:
There’s a real United-Statesian bigness to some of the things Whitman says.
Furthermore, Urban Dictionary, a website documenting modern slang, includes Unitedstatesian. This top definition from 2007 is no longer available but it is far better than many of the current ones.
So what’s a United-Statesian to do?
Language is a sly beast, slipping us up when we least expect it. A word can be used for years and then, suddenly, it takes on a new meaning (cool, woke, and savage), is banned (retard, housewife, and homosexual) or is reclaimed (queer, slut, and geek).
At what point do those of us from the United States decide that the term United-Statesian is ready for mainstream use? Of course, none of us will ever make that decision. It will be word that creeps and crawls in back corners of the internet until, one day, it doesn’t.
My advice is, when speaking Spanish overseas, always use the term estadounidense. It avoids any confusion and is unlikely to cause offense. That’s essential when you are a guest in another country.
How about when speaking English? My advice is to try it on, like a new pair of pants.
Maybe it’s a poor fit. More likely, it’s going to be like bell bottoms, appropriate in the right place at the right time.