If someone were to ask, “Of which nationality are you?” We citizens of the United States would likely respond, “I am an American.” Recently, however, some groups have raised the objection that such a response is an incorrect usage of the term and an example of US egocentric views of their status on the continent. Such critics claim that this usage excludes all other people groups on the American continents from what should be a shared title (Canadians, Mexicans, Argentinians, etc., are “Americans” too). To put it simply, I believe this objection is faulty, and that the alternative is true: our reflexive use of the English word, “American,” to refer to members of the culture and nation of the United States of America is justifiable on linguistic and historical bases.
Firstly, our use of the term “American” can be justified by the term’s use in history. Though the origin of the term “America” is uncertain, most agree that it originated from a feminine latinization of the name Amerigo, referencing Amerigo Vespucci, one of the first European explorers of the New World. The continent was first bestowed that title in print by a group of German scholars in their Cosmographiae Introductio of 1507. The term was appropriated into English, and upon British colonization of the New World, the term “American” was used, relative to people groups, in two parallel senses. In the first, it referred to the indigenous peoples of the continent, and in the second, it differentiated between English citizens in the British Isles and those in the New World colonies. These two usages are recorded in parallel use by the OED as early as the first half of the 17th Century, and essentially continue to today, with two corresponding changes: the former usage is now accomplished by adding “Native,” and the latter usage now includes citizens of the United States.
To recap, this historical perspective reveals that the term “America,” when originally used to describe the New World geographically, was of Latin tongue and European usage, having no origin in the new continent or its peoples. When later converted to English as the descriptor “American,” the term came to refer specifically to the inhabitants of the British New World Colonies. The title “American,” when in reference to people groups, was, in fact, a name given to the nascent culture and people of the United States by English-speaking Europeans, rather than through any self-declaration or undue claim to the term. Essentially, as it was the States’ to begin with, and was given to them by their European parent state, the term “American” may be justifiably applied to their peoples in that same way today.
Secondly, our modern usage of the term “American” may be allowed for by the properties of words themselves. Our understanding of the relationship between word and meaning is derived from linguistics, specifically Ferdinand De Saussure, and his Course in General Linguistics. From Saussure’s theories, we derive three principles of words and meaning. Firstly, words are related principally to concepts, and not to objects. For example, the word “table” applies not to one specific table but the concept of a table generally. Secondly, the pairing of words and concepts is arbitrary. What we call “table,” the Spanish call “mesa;” either of us could have easily called it “taleb” when it was invented, without changing the concept. Thirdly, words are linked with concepts on the basis of convention. Within the English language group, we agree that the word “table” is always paired with the concept of the object itself, and when we say “table” we expect that this conventional understanding will be known and upheld by every English speaker in the room.
Words are linked to concepts, yet have no inherent ties to them, and the relationship between the two is defined by a language group’s conventions. Thus, there are no incorrect word-concept combinations except those that are not generally agreed upon by the language group. Additionally, no language group is obligated to change the agreed upon combination for the sake of another group, unless both desire to communicate the same concept. We do not expect the Spanish to change their language conventions to tell us about tables, or to use our word “table” in the same way we do. With relevance to the term “American,” objectors to the common US-English usage wish to communicate a different concept with the term, and thus fall outside the conventions of the US-English group. However, so long as we still collectively understand what we mean by the term, we may justifiably use the term for what we have decided it means: a member of the culture and nation of the United States.
To summarize, our continued use of “American” in national and cultural self-reference is justified in that, historically, this has been an accepted and inherited meaning of the word since the days of the colonies, not self-proclaimed. In addition, it is justifiable in that, linguistically, we as a culture have agreed upon that meaning, and thus, at least within our culture, it is valid for that reason alone. Within recent years, there has been a tendency among some to attack the culture of the US; it is likely that such a naming controversy would not exist were it not for such sentiments already being in play. The objectors to this culture are not simply looking for ways to re-title it. They are looking for ways to radically reshape it, to fully dissociate themselves from the culture they have inherited. Those goals, and their methods for reaching them, are futile, as I have elaborated elsewhere. If this culture needs to be reshaped, it cannot be reshaped just by changing the name. But, given the reasons above, the name still stands on its own: we are Americans.