Let me ask a simple question that you will surely be able to answer: what would you call a person living in the United States? An American. Right? Okay, but what would we call Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios, more commonly just called Simón Bolívar? Well, Bolívar was born in 1783 in what Spanish America was then. His career as a revolutionary took him all over the Atlantic World: Spain, the US, Haiti, Jamaica, and all over South America. His work as a revolutionary saw him lead the peoples of much of what today is called Latin America from Spanish rule. His name is probably most familiar to you because two nations took his name: Bolivia and Venezuela (its full name being the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela). But back to the question at hand: what do we call Simón Bolívar? Well, I would call him an American. But he only briefly lived in the United States, never held citizenship in the US, and certainly did not see himself as having any claim to being “American” in that sense of the word. But it would still be correct and useful to call him American.
Here is the problem that a lot of Latin American, Caribbean, and Native people in the Americas have started to reckon with: what is an American? An American can be both a citizen of the United States and a person living in North, Central, or South America. In Latin America, that later definition is the only definition that is widely accepted. So, to most people in the Americas outside of the United States, an American could be someone from the US, but it could also be someone from Mexico, Peru, Haiti, or any of the other various nations with which the US shares these continents.
This is not a problem not just with people but with subjects. I am a historian, and one of my areas of research is American Labor History. So, what do I study? Am I studying the labor movements of Cesar Chavez (who worked in the US) along with José Alonso and the ATLAS union of the early 1950s (which was active all across South America) at the same level? Sadly no. It is more accurate to describe my field of study as US Labor History because I focus on the history of labor in the United States. Not only does it clarify my field of study within US institutions where the study of both the US and wider America are done, but it is also helpful when I speak about what I study to my colleagues from the Americas, who would be rightfully confused if I claimed to give an overview of the history of labor in America and only mentioned Eugene V. Debs and the Wobblies without talking about Salvador Allende or the Zapatistas.
So, what are we to do about this word? How am I to call someone from the United States if not an American? Well, this is not the first time someone has thought about trying to use a different word. Henry Louis Mencken, a writer, and philosopher in the early 1900s collected words that had been used instead of American in 1947. While many are region based, such as Washingtonian and Columbian (which would add more confusion), many are for all people in the US. There is Fredonian, which was used by the first Texans to rebel against Mexico ten years before the famed Battle of the Alamo. Usian is a short little term that derives from the US acronym for the United States for the name. Perhaps the most realistic replacements might be United Statesian and United Stater (my personal favorite). Others have taken a shot at giving Americans (from the US) a more precise and less confusing name. The famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright popularized Usonian (using the same logic as Usian) as an alternative. Despite the tries, none of these have taken off as an often-used substitute.
There is a word that is used in many parts of the world, in one form or another, to describe citizens of the United States: Yankee. Yankee is said to have its origins in the Cherokee word for coward. It was adopted by the Patriots during the American Revolution, and War of Independence, most famously in the mocking song-turned patriotic anthem “Yankee Doodle.” However, there is a problem with Yankee; despite its wide use outside of the States, in the United States, it has the connotation of meaning someone from the northern states, but the New England area especially. During the US Civil War (which I also believe needs to be renamed, but that’s for a later blog post), the term was used as the opposite of Confederate. Historians still use Yankee mainly in that context, and it would be awkward to shift the meaning for us. More importantly, it doesn’t solve the problem of the use of American as a category. Saying, for instance, that I study Yankee Labor History would be confusing because of the previously described geographical and historical context around that word.
So where does that leave us (or I should say US)? Well, I think the solution is simple, we avoid using American to avoid talking about people from the US until we land on a better word (I will be rooting for United-Stater/Stater). It takes a little adjusting to, and some sentences may come off as awkward. But last semester, I got to write a twenty-page paper on Labor history in the United States between 1886 and 1921, and I committed to not using the word “American” to refer to people from the United States. I was successful not only in not using it but making it so smooth that several readers did not realize that I had not used the word until I told them.
Using the word American to mean all those from the Americas will not solve the problems of the global south, nor will it give us all some sense of unity with our fellow Americans in Latin America and the Carrabin. However, it moves us in that direction. It makes us here in the United States take off the blinders that we sometimes have, that there is a world outside of the United States. A big world. Right outside our door are people who share the title of American with us.
“Yankee, n. and adj.” OED Online. September 2022. Oxford University Press.