Opinion: Why You Are Likely Using The Word “American” Wrong

Using the term American to define someone as being from the United States is fundamentally flawed because every person residing on the continents of both North and South America is American.

By Kristi Eckert | Updated


In the United States, we have an egocentricity problem. It is essentially a ubiquity that residents in the US refer to themselves as “Americans,” thinking that it is a unique identifier of being from the United States. This is wrong on a fundamental level, and I think it only serves to highlight both the hubris and sheer ignorance that percolates through this increasingly divided country. 

Let’s have a lesson in geography. The United States is located in North America. North America consists of Canada, the US, and Mexico. Beneath North America is South America which encompasses the entirety of Latin America.

Every country that makes up North and South America is part of none other than America. Hence, to reiterate the exceedingly obvious point, every single person living and breathing on these respective continents is American! Logically then, if you have been using the word American to define yourself as being from the United States, you are incorrect.

Interestingly enough, however, is that you’d be hard-pressed to find an individual outside of the United States that refers to themselves as wholly American. Only those of us in the United States have the hubris to lay claim to two entire continents. 

For instance, our neighbors to the north proudly say they are Canadian, as do our neighbors to the south call themselves Mexican. In South America, it’s the same. There are Colombians, Agentianians, Chileans, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, etcetera. And they refer to themselves as such. 

In fact, many individuals in Latin America take great offense when people from the United States refer to themselves as American. “For Latinos/as here and abroad, calling this country ‘America’ is offensive,” highlighted political activist Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martínez. People in the United States fail to realize, as was astutely pointed out by bloggers Martine Rousseau and Olivier Houdart, that “… all Americans (of the U.S.) are American, and yet all Americans [i.e. of the continent] are not American (of the U.S.)!”

Unfortunately, though, the world, in general, seemingly only reinforces the egocentric problem that the US has with the word American, as there isn’t any push to contradict it. Global media refers to those of us in the United States as “Americans,” further perpetuating what is fundamentally incorrect.

The effect of the media should not be undermined. For instance, an article published in the Atlantic pointed out that people in France use the word American when referring to people from the United States. Thus, continuing to fuel the incorrect notion that only those in the United States are American. 

However, not every country falls victim to this incorrect notion of who is really American. In Spanish, there is a word called Estadounidense. It essentially describes US citizens in a way that could be translated as “United Statesian,” defined as one being from the United States.

Overall, it’s clear that using the word American with the ideology that only those from the United States encompass the term is fundamentally flawed. This suggests that an ideological shift needs to occur for the word American to be used correctly. Essentially, that egocentric bubble that US residents are enveloped in needs to burst. 

But is bursting that bubble really possible? For those willing to shift their perspective, it is my belief that, yes, the cultural vernacular in the United States regarding the use of the term American can shift. But honestly, I think we’ll see pigs fly and dogs talk before that happens. 

I believe that this is because the United States as a collective is becoming more ideologically divided with each passing year. And it is evident in how politically polarized the nation has become — the conservatives getting more conservative and vice versa. Hence, some will inevitably see a push to change the cultural rhetoric of what people in the United States believe to be American as a threat to their core identity. 

However, as a takeaway, hopefully highlighting the inaccuracy in someone from the US referring to themselves as American will at least serve to give some individuals pause, and reconsider their personal hubris, before the next time they utter it.