American in Spain

US Americans

August 30, 2007

In the instantly ubiquitous video of Miss Teen South Carolina's response to a fairly simple beauty contest question, she uses the phrase "US Americans". If you're in the minority that haven't seen the video yet, go watch it, cry a little bit, and come back. My first reaction to hearing the phrase "US Americans" was, "God, what an idiot! No one says that because it means the same thing and is completely redundant!" And I suspect, from what I've seen in comments around the web, that I'm not alone in this response. However, I would like to remind you US Americans that this phrase is not only not redundant, but actually appropriate and should be adopted by everyone.

To the rest of the world, the word "America" refers to a continent. And I really mean one continent. In Spain, children are taught that there are five continents. Here they are listed on the Spanish Wikipedia page for continente. Even the English version mentions how arbitrary the counting is.

The ambiguity of the word "american" never really hit me until I was waiting in a Spanish immigration office lobby filled with an assortment of shorter-than-me, darker skinned, obviously from Native American bloodline, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, Cubans, Brazilians, etc. When my number was called and I went up to the desk, the woman said, "Nacionalidad?" I replied, "Americano", and she said, in a disgruntled government employee tone, "Yeah, so is everyone else around here. What country are you from?"

Luckily, Spanish has a solution to this conundrum. If any language would, it'd be Spanish, right? They have invented this beautiful seven-syllable word: estadounidense. Since Estados Unidos is Spanish for United States, estadounidense is kind of like "United Statesian". I mainly love it because it contains the word "dense". Like most nationality words, it's both a noun and an adjective.

English has no good equivalent, and probably never will. "US Americans" is about as good as anyone can do. A couple years ago, on a web site that I used to frequent, the word "USian" grew in popularity and usage. It was initially repulsive to me, but I came to think it useful in writing. How it's pronounced in still a mystery to me.

It wasn't until I searched for "USian" just now that I found a long, beautiful discussion about this exact topic on (where else?) Wikipedia. They've really nailed the current state of vocabulary in Spain:

In Spain, people who have lived in the Western Hemisphere but now live in Spain may be called americanos. The Diccionario de la Lengua Española (Dictionary of the Spanish Language) published by the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), also gives estadounidense (United Stater) as one of the definitions of americano, meaning "someone from the United States or relating to the United States". However, most spaniards, being influenced by the european media, still call U.S nationals "americans"".

I'm often introduced to people as "norte americano", which also works. This almost always refers to the US and Canada, since everyone will assume that Spanish is not your first language if you are North American. Too bad for Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

So anyway, I just thought that this issue could use some awareness raising. We US Americans can be a little too US-centric sometimes. I bet that most US Americans have never once thought about this issue, but that most non-US Americans have. Hell, a fifth of us can't even find the US on a map.

Hopefully this post will "help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future".