I have been digging deeper into the Spanish language in recent weeks, mainly to push into some research that I will soon be beginning for a master’s degree that will require me to stumble through some Spanish-language research and books.
And, of course, to also make my every day life easier.
To that end, for months I have been following the Spanish-language media. Last week, I read a few recaps of the Summit of the Americas, which was held a little over a week ago in Columbia. It was somewhere in these articles that I ran across the following terms: estadounidenses and norteamericano. (Literally, “United Statesian” and “North American”).
I had first encountered these words a few months ago when visiting a local museum, where I read a placard explaining that the estadounidenses de norteamericano had tested the Mars rover in the Atacama desert. (That’s a mouthful.)
Now, anyone who grew up in the United States, including me, has been conditioned to call themselves American. “I’m proud to be an American…” as the song goes. And before I continue here, I recongize that sometimes labels are just that: labels. They grow and evolve and morph with a language, whether or not they make much sense. We just have to deal with them because they’ve become so ingrained in the mainstream use of language. Clearly, that has happened with the term American in English.
On the other hand, there is a potential conflict with what we, citizens of the United States, call ourselves and what the landmass that we live on – and share with dozens of other sovereign countries – is called. North America. South America. Central America. The Americas.
I first thought about this problem when I studied in Canada. I realized there could be a potential conflict by calling myself American, so when filling out Canadian customs paperwork, in the “citizenship” box I always write United States. That, I figure, is the best way to avoid inspiring any negative feelings. My logic has official support: note that, of course, the U.S. State Department calls itself U.S. Department of State and not American Department of State.
But my awareness of this problematic label has only grown since visiting South America. As mentioned above, Spanish designates two terms to U.S. citizens: either estado-unidense or norteamericano, or, for a real mouthful, estado-unidenses de norteamerica.
Before I go much further, I am sure you are already thinking of the problem with the label of norteamericano: what about the Canadians? Canadian citizens are, for linguistic purposes, easier to label: either Canadian in English or Canadenses in Spanish. But, if the Spanish-speaking world calls U.S. citizens norteamericanos, they are ignoring the other countries in North America which, for all intents and purposes, should also include Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, etc. As such, Wikipedia cites a recommendation that Spanish speakers do not use the term norteamericanos to refer to U.S. citizens, but despite this in the Spanish-language media I still frequently encounter this term to refer solely to the United States. For instance, I ran across the statement in a newspaper that Argentina’s president met with the norteamerican administration in Columbia. She met with President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, not Prime Minister Harper…
To bypass this whole issue, many
Americans U.S. citizens here in Chile call themselves gringoes. But I take issue with that because I feel it is a derogatory label.
The lesson here is probably that you can never win with labels. I certainly am not bringing up all of this simply to fall into the trap of endorsing a certain way of labeling an “American” (or United Statesian? I can hardly see us transitioning to that label anytime soon…) over another. Rather I point it out as, above all, simply a good reminder that despite our sometimes misguided semantics we all, geographically speaking, share the American landmass.