Marco's Blog

All content personal opinions or work.
en eo

L'America: Why Do U.S. Americans Call Themselves, “Americans?”

2014-07-01 3 min read marco

One of the things people from outside the United States are not happy about is the fact that people inside the United States call themselves Americans, and the country itself America. That’s not fair, they’ll say, after all America is much larger than just the United States!

It turns out that the logic behind the naming is simple: while in much of the world, the number of continents has been fixed at five (Africa, America, Asia, Europe, Oceania), in America, there are seven continents (Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Oceania).

That many people think it’s five you see in the Olympic emblem, where the five colored rings represent the five continents. Red is for America, Yellow for Asia, Black for Africa, Blue for Oceania, and Green for Europe. That’s of course in keeping with the most cringe-worthy racism you could apply to the question.

That it is seven fits America’s predilection for Biblical numbers. Seven seems meaningful, God-given, necessary.

Of course, neither is right. Europe, for instance, is visibly just the Western end of Asia, separated from the main continent only by a middling chain of mountains that top neither “continent.” Oceania, on the other hand, is mostly a whole lot of water and a startling choice for a land mass, which is what a continent is meant to be.

It is true that the five continent theory has to live with two glaring omissions: it doesn’t account at all for Antarctica, which is very clearly a continent; and it can’t explain why it counts America as one continent, where the land bridge joining the two halves is skinnier not only than that separating Asia and Europe, but also quite comparable to the one separating Asia and Africa.

In any case, since in America (the country) there is no America-the-continent, the term is considered up for grabs, and those that grabbed it first are the people of the United States. Who also not coincidentally formed the first independent country on the continent(s) and hence do have some bragging and naming rights. (Hey, at least the didn’t claim the Moon for America, despite being the first ones on there!)

So, the country I live in is proud to call itself America, and its citizens are the Americans. The continent on which America is located is called North America, and includes the countries of America, Canada, Mexico, and much of Central America (which is the Southern peninsula of North America).

The other continent is called South America. The two together (which is what much of the world calls just, “America”) is called “The Americas.” Arguably, any person living on The Americas would also be an American, but Americans just don’t use the word that way.

On the other hand, the outlying parts of America (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the minor territories) tend to feel left out. In Hawaii, for instance, if you say that you are flying back to “America,” you are constantly reminded that you are actually flying to the “Mainland.” Technically, you are flying from the continent of Oceania to the continent of North America, but Hawaiians consider the name America to refer quite naturally to the country. So don’t use it.