The meaning of the word American in the English language varies according to the historical, geographical, and political context in which it is used. American is derived from America, a term originally denoting all of the New World (also called the Americas). In some expressions, it retains this Pan-American sense, but its usage has evolved over time and, for various historical reasons, the word came to denote people or things specifically from the United States of America.
In modern English, American generally refers to persons or things related to the United States of America; among native English speakers this usage is almost universal, with any other use of the term requiring specification.
The word can be used as either an adjective or a noun (viz. a demonym). In adjectival use, it means "of or relating to the United States"; for example, "Elvis Presley was an American singer" or "the man prefers American English". In its noun form, the word generally means a resident or citizen of the US, or occasionally someone whose ethnic identity is simply "American". The noun is rarely used in American English to refer to people not connected to the United States. When used with a grammatical qualifier, the adjective American can mean "of or relating to the Americas", as in or Indigenous American. Less frequently, the adjective can take this meaning without a qualifier, as in "American Spanish dialects and pronunciation differ by country", or the name of the Organization of American States. A third use of the term pertains specifically to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, for instance, "In the 16th century, many Americans died from imported diseases during the European conquest".
Compound constructions such as "African Americans" likewise refer exclusively to people in or from the United States of America, as does the prefix "Americo-". For instance, the Americo-Liberians and their language Merico language derive their name from the fact that they are descended from African American settlers, i.e. former slaves in the United States of America.
In French, états-unien, étas-unien or étasunien, from États-Unis d'Amérique ("United States of America"), is a rarely used word that distinguishes U.S. things and persons from the adjective américain, which denotes persons and things from the United States, but may also refer to "the Americas".
Likewise, German's use of U.S.-amerikanisch and U.S.-Amerikaner observe said cultural distinction, solely denoting U.S. things and people. Note that in normal parlance, the adjective "American" and its direct cognates are usually used if the context renders the nationality of the person clear.
This differentiation is prevalent in German-speaking countries, as indicated by the style manual of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (one of the leading German-language newspapers in Switzerland) which dismisses the term U.S.-amerikanisch as both ′unnecessary′ and ′artificial′ and recommends replacing it with amerikanisch. Vademecum. Der sprachlich-technische Leitfaden der «Neuen Zürcher Zeitung», 13th edition. Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich 2013, p. 102, s. v. US-amerikanisch. The respective guidelines of the foreign ministries of Austria, Germany and Switzerland all prescribe Amerikaner and amerikanisch in reference to the United States for official usage, making no mention of U.S.-Amerikaner or U.S.-amerikanisch.Eidgenössisches Departement für auswärtige Angelegenheiten: „Liste der Staatenbezeichnungen“ ; Bundesministerium für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten: „Liste der Staatennamen und deren Ableitungen in den vom Bundesministerium für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten verwendeten Formen“; Auswärtiges Amt: „Verzeichnis der Staatennamen für den amtlichen Gebrauch in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland“
Portuguese has americano, denoting both a person or thing from the Americas and a U.S. national. For referring specifically to a U.S. national and things, some words used are estadunidense (also spelled estado-unidense, "United States person"), from Estados Unidos da América, and ianque ("Yankee")—both usages exist in Brazil, but are uncommon in Portugal—but the term most often used, and the only one in Portugal, is norte-americano, even though it could, as with its Spanish equivalent, apply to Canadians, Mexicans, etc. as well.
In Spanish, americano denotes geographic and cultural origin in the New World, as well as (infrequently) a U.S. citizen; the more common term is estadounidense ("United States person"), which derives from Estados Unidos de América ("United States of America"). The Spanish term norteamericano ("North American") is frequently used to refer things and persons from the United States, but this term can also denote people and things from Canada and Mexico. Among Spanish-speakers, North America generally doesn't include Central America or the Caribbean.
In other languages, however, there is no possibility for confusion. For example, the Chinese language word for "U.S. national" is () is derived from a word for the United States, , where is an abbreviation for Yàměilìjiā ("America") and is "country". The name for the American continents is , from plus ("continent"). Thus, a is an American in the continent sense, and a is an American in the U.S. sense.
Conversely, in Czech language, there is no possibility for disambiguation. Američan (m.) and američanka (f.) can refer to persons from the United States or from the continents of the Americas, and there is no specific word capable of distinguishing the two meanings. For this reason, the latter meaning is very rarely used, and word američan(ka) is used almost exclusively to refer to persons from the United States. The usage is exactly parallel to the English word.
Korean language and Vietnamese also use unambiguous terms, with Korean having (미국(인)) for the country versus (아메리카) for the continents, and Vietnamese having Hoa Kỳ for the country versus Châu Mỹ for the continents. Japanese has such terms as well ( 米国(人)), but they are found more in newspaper headlines than in speech, where predominates.
In Swahili language, Marekani means specifically the United States, and Mwamarekani is a U.S. national, whereas the international form Amerika refers to the continents, and Mwaamerika would be an inhabitants thereof. Likewise, the Esperanto word Ameriko refers to the continents. For the country there is the term Usono. Thus, a citizen of the United States is an usonano, whereas an amerikano is an inhabitant of the Americas.
In Hungarian the term amerikai (American) refers to a person or a thing from the United States.
16th-century European usage of American denoted the native inhabitants of the New World. The earliest recorded use of this term in English is in Thomas Hacket's 1568 translation of André Thévet's book France Antarctique; Thévet himself had referred to the natives as Ameriques. In the following century, the term was extended to European settlers and their descendants in the Americas. The earliest recorded use of "English-American" dates to 1648, in Thomas Gage's The English-American his travail by sea and land: or, a new survey of the West India's.
In English, American was used especially for people in the British America. Samuel Johnson, the leading English lexicographer, wrote in 1775, before the United States declared independence: "That the Americans are able to bear taxation is indubitable." The Declaration of Independence of July 1776 refers to "the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America" adopted by the "Representatives of the United States of America" on July 4, 1776. The official name of the country was reaffirmed on November 15, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first of which says, "The Stile of this Confederacy shall be 'The United States of America'". The Articles further state:
Sam Haselby, a history professor in Lebanon and Egypt, claims it was British officials who first called the colonists "Americans". When the drafters of the Declaration—Thomas Jefferson from Virginia, for example, or John Adams from Massachusetts—talked about "my country", they meant Virginia or Massachusetts, respectively. This situation was changed by the Revolution and the impulse toward nationalism.Wood, Gordon S. (2015), "A Different Story of What Shaped America", New York Review of Books, July 9 issue. Jefferson, newly elected president in May 1801 wrote, "I am sure the measures I mean to pursue are such as would in their nature be approved by every American who can emerge from preconceived prejudices; as for those who cannot, we must take care of them as of the sick in our hospitals. The medicine of time and fact may cure some of them."Letter TJ to Theodore Foster, May 1801, in Paul Leicester Ford ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson (1905) 8:50.
In The Federalist Papers (1787–88), Alexander Hamilton and James Madison used the adjective American with two different meanings: one political and one geographic; "the American republic" in Federalist No. 51 and in Federalist No. 70, and, in Federalist No. 24, Hamilton used American to denote the lands beyond the U.S.'s political borders.
Early official U.S. documents show inconsistent usage; the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France used "the United States of North America" in the first sentence, then "the said United States" afterwards; "the United States of America" and "the United States of North America" derive from "the United Colonies of America" and "the United Colonies of North America". The Treaty of Peace and Amity of September 5, 1795, between the United States and the Barbary States contains the usages "the United States of North America", "citizens of the United States", and "American Citizens".
U.S. President George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address, declaimed that "The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation." Political scientist Virginia L. Arbery notes that, in his Farewell Address:
"...Washington invites his fellow citizens to view themselves now as Americans who, out of their love for the truth of liberty, have replaced their maiden names (Virginians, South Carolinians, New Yorkers, etc.) with that of “American”. Get rid of, he urges, “any appellation derived from local discriminations.” By defining himself as an American rather than as a Virginian, Washington set the national standard for all citizens. "Over and over, Washington said that America must be something set apart. As he put it to Patrick Henry, 'In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others.'"Arbery, Virginia L. (1999), "Washington's Farewell Address and the Form of the American Regime"; In: Gary L. Gregg II and Matthew Spalding, Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition, pp. 204, 206.As the historian Garry Wills has noted: "This was a theme dear to Washington. He wrote to Timothy Pickering that the nation 'must never forget that we are Americans; the remembrance of which will convince us we ought not to be French or English'."Garry Wills (1984), Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, pp. 92-93. Washington's countrymen subsequently embraced his exhortation with notable enthusiasm.
This semantic divergence among North American anglophones, however, remained largely unknown in the Spanish-American colonies. In 1801, the document titled Letter to American Spaniards—published in French (1799), in Spanish (1801), and in English (1808)—might have influenced Venezuela's Act of Independence and its 1811 constitution.
Common short forms and abbreviations are the United States, the U.S., the U.S.A., and America; colloquial versions include the U.S. of A. and the States. The term Columbia (from the Columbus surname) was a popular name for the U.S. and for the entire geographic Americas; its usage is present today in the District of Columbia's name. Moreover, the womanly personification of Columbia appears in some official documents, including editions of the U.S. dollar.
American Samoa is a recognized territorial name at the United Nations.
In Brazil, the term americano is used to address both that which pertains to both American continents and, in current speech, that which pertains to the U.S.; the particular meaning is deduced from context. Alternatively, the term norte-americano ("North American") is also used in more informal contexts, while estadunidense (of the U.S.) is the preferred form in academia. Use of the three terms is common in schools, government, and media. The term América is used almost exclusively for the continents, and the U.S. is called Estados Unidos ("United States") or Estados Unidos da América ("United States of America"), often abbreviated EUA.
The entry for "America" in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage from 1999 reads:
Many international treaties use the terms American and American citizen:
Nevertheless, no alternative to American is common.