Gordon Precious, one of our Canadian subscribers, today wrote on a subject that constantly arises in writing the alphaDictionary website and the Good Words. Here is what he wrote:
On the subject of “Yankee” (July 3, 2011, Dr. Goodword), and with Canada’s national day, “Canada Day”, having just past on July 1st, (celebrating our 144th birthday. The United States of America is about to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, (its 235th, I believe), it seems an appropriate time for me to raise an old question and slight grievance:
“Why do not the citizens of the United States of America have a singular, just appellation for themselves?”
Ever since I attended public school, here in Canada, over 80 years ago, I have considered myself to be an “American”, inasmuch as I live in America – North America to be exact. I find that the citizens of Mexico, Central and South America also consider themselves “American”. It is quite common to see a sign on a storefront in Guatemala, Columbia, Chile, etc., “Compañía de Plomería Americano”, which is, of course, “American Plumbing Company”, but has no connection with the U.S.A.
It is my contention that the citizens of the United States of America have unwittingly usurped the name “American” from the rest of us Americans.
I would like the citizens of the United States of America to find, and develop the use of, a specific name for their nationality, as have the citizens of every other country of which I can think.
I generally agree and try to use awkward phrases like “people of the US” or “those of us in the US” instead of “American” whenever I can think of it. They are all awkward, though.
The problem is obvious to all: we have a queer name for a country. It is easy to call those from Canada Canadians, those from Mexico Mexicans, and those from Guatemala Guatemalans. But there is no word derivable from “The United States of America” in the same vein unless, of course, we take the last word in this phrase, “America”, and use Americans.
We might try building a word from an acronym, USans or USAsians. I’m sure these sound as bad to everyone else as they do to me. United Statesians not only sounds atrocious but is grossly ungrammatical. The best solution is the one we seem to have chosen, the one mentioned above, using the last word in the phrase, Americans.
I wouldn’t call such a selection “usurpation” of the term from other American nations, however. Using the same word to refer to the US and the Americas is simply another instance of polysemy, a word with more than one meaning. I personally think that, outside scientific terminology, there are no words with only one meaning, take for example cooler (noun and adjective), dresser (furniture and person), air (for breathing, for singing).
Nations generally do have distinct names that distinguish any one from the others. However, we even get polysemy among the names of nations: Turkey, China, Cyprus, Georgia, Jordan, and Jamaica are a few. We also find it among the personal nouns: Danish (pastry), Dutch (uncle), and Indian are a few of those. The fact that American falls into this category should not offend our neighbors in the other Americas.
So, I see no offense in the word America having referring to two geographical entities. All of the alternatives are worse.