The History of the Name of America
This is the intricate history of how the United States of America has appropriated a name that belongs to a whole continent also due to European media and ‘intellectual elites’. This is a story of linguistic imperialism. Leave all your preconceptions at the door if you have any as this report may change your perspective on this issue.
by Katia Novella Miller
In most of the world people have forgotten that America was originally the name of the entire Western Hemisphere and that an American was whoever was born in that hemisphere. It wasn’t long ago that the European and Latin American countries as well as Canada used the name America for the entire ‘New World,’ but somehow the words ‘America’ and ‘American’ have become synonymous only for the people of The United States.
This international dissemination of the name ‘America’ and of the adjective ‘American’ as synonymous of the United States has hurt other North, Central and South Americans who were used to defining themselves as ‘Americans’ too.
”If you are Latin American it is irritating to be continuously expelled and cancelled from the geography of the continent that gave you birth.”
”It is as if South Africa seized the name Africa for its own exclusive use and the other countries would have to find an alternative name for Africa and the Africans.”
Outside Latin America it is in the U.S. where this controversy continues, at least privately, between those who have taken possession of the name ‘America,’ often subconsciously, and those who feel that it has been stolen from them.
”To discuss the origin of the name of America is to discuss our history and identity as Americans,” stress many people from the U.S., but is this same point not also valid for the other ‘Americans,’ the excluded?
Among Latin Americans, Mexicans and Cubans seem to have partially accepted this exclusion, probably due to their proximity to the U.S. They have adapted to calling the people of the U.S. ‘Americans’ but for the vast majority of Latin Americans this subject keeps opening old wounds.
But how could a proper name of a continent become the name of one country? To understand this we have to leave our contemporary world and jump into history.
In 1492 the Genoese (1) Christopher Columbus was funded by the Kings of Castile and Aragon and some Genoese bankers to find a new route to India after the Ottoman invasion blocked trading between Europe and Asia. He arrived at the Caribbean islands inhabited by the Arawak natives. Convinced he had found the region of spices he named ‘the new lands’ India. Columbus obtained vast rights and privileges to the lands he ‘discovered’ and established a system that became the model for the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. He also started slave trading, but after his third trip he was forced to return to Spain in chains, victim of envy, greed and xenophobia. The Spanish kings revoked his privileges and his name fell into disgrace thus leaving a door open to new explorers.
In Seville, Columbus met the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci who worked at the Alcazar for Giannotto Berardi. Berardi represented the Florentine Bartolomeo Marchioni, who controlled for his own interest and that of The Medici (the most important Florentine aristocrats at the time) the trading of gold and slaves in Portugal. In 1494 Vespucci organized a shipment of slaves for Columbus.
The beginning of the Columbus/Vespucci relationship was merely commercial, then epistolary; slowly becoming a friendship nourished by esteem and mutual interest for those ‘new’ lands.
The number of travels made by Vespucci is uncertain; three are confirmed (2). The first two were funded by the Spanish, the latter by the Portuguese. Vespucci explored the Atlantic coasts of South America arriving on his third expedition at Patagonia. His collaboration with the Lusitans (Portuguese) caused mistrust in Spain and when it was discovered that he was using the official Spanish maps in his private cartography lessons he was forbidden to teach and work again for the Spanish Crown. Like his Genoese friend, Vespucci’s last years were filled with little comfort and lots of nostalgia for those ‘new’ lands he would never see again. But while Columbus was always convinced he had arrived in India (Asia), as many experts assert, Vespucci became aware of being in a ‘Mundus Novus’ (New World) and it was this intuition that made popular his name.
The Name America
Some researchers suspect that Vespucci wrote his chronicles – between 1497 and 1504 – with the intention of taking the recognition and merit of the ‘discovery’ for himself (it is important to note however that his travel accounts were published in Florence and therefore it is not improbable that the Florentine’s were those who wanted the accolades of such an exceptional finding). But in reality, it wasn’t Vespucci’s ambition that got an Hemisphere/two continents/the American continent named after him. The name America was decided by the Germans.
It was the German monk Martin Waldseemüller (3) who made the name America famous.
Martin Waldseemüller was a designer and cartographer who studied at the University of Freiburg. On April 24th, 1507 his convent published a book entitled “Cosmographiae Introduction.” The text, based on Vespucci chronicles – was accompanied by a world map very likely made by Amerigo. Prior to this map the most well known map of the world was by Claudius Ptolemy made around 150 BCE (4).
In the last chapter of “Cosmographiae Introduction” is the quote that made the name of the Florentine famous: ”A fourth part of the world has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci…I don’t see a reason for not calling it America, as the land of Americus, to honor Americus its creator.” The little volume with the map became a success! In 1507 seven editions were printed without any justice for Christopher Columbus who died forgotten by everybody. In 1507 the name of America, created by the Germans, started to spread in Europe and then in the rest of the world. But what was the link or connection between the ‘Spanish discovery,’ the Spaniards and the Germans?
Naming is Dominating
Despite that the Kingdom of Castile and Aragon had all ‘European legal rights’ over those newly ‘discovered’/invaded territories, the Spaniards didn’t have the right to name them.
It is useful to remember that world geographical nomenclature is deeply connected with the history of invasions, economic interests and fighting between different human groups.
The fact that it was the Germans who gave a name to those lands ‘discovered’ and ‘officially owned’ by the Spaniards – as sanctioned by the Spanish Pope Alexander VI, in Rome – was a way of questioning Spain’s exclusive rights to the ‘New World.’ Historical evidence supports this theory: a few years after the ‘discovery’ all powerful European nations – first Portugal, then England, France, Holland and Sweden – started to challenge Spain’s exclusive right to possess all lands in that ‘Mundus Novus.’
America Versus West Indies (Indias Occidentales)
During the 16th century almost all of Europe started to call the fourth continent ‘America’ except the Spaniards and Portuguese. In the years following the ‘discovery’ they referred to the ‘New World’ as ‘Las Indias’ (Indies). A few years later, when it became clear that it was a new continent and not China or India, the Iberians started to call it ‘West Indies’ (5) to distinguish it from the eastern ones. It was the name West Indies (Indias Occidentales) and NOT America that was used in Spain, Portugal and Ibero-America for the ‘Mundus Novus’ until the 18th century.
For the inhabitants of its colonies Spain created a specific lexicon based on ethnic inequality, the ‘Caste System’, to distinguish the different types and levels of miscegenation: ‘mulato’ (black and white), ‘zambo’ (black and Indian), ‘mestizo’ (at first Indian and white). The Spaniards and French called the ‘pure Europeans’ born in the ‘Mondus Novus,’ respectively, ‘criollos’ (a noun with its roots in the word ‘crio’ = offspring) and ‘créole’ (locally born with foreign ancestry). Native American peoples were called ‘Indios’ or ‘Indian,’ a name given to them by Christopher Columbus (6).
In the Portuguese colony of Brazil, the words ‘crioulo’ and ‘criolo’ were used instead to designate blacks or people of this progeny. In the former Spanish territory of Rio Grande do Sul ‘criolo’ was a person of European descendancy while in the rest of Brazil ‘whites,’ very likely, were called ‘Brasileiros.’
The first European descendants born in the ‘Mundus Novus’ to call themselves ‘Americans’ were those of the Thirteen Colonies founded by the English in North America between the 17th and 18th centuries.
Since the occupation of the first territories the British called the ‘New World’ ‘America’ and the people ‘American.’ We don’t know much about who this term applied to. From the little information that has arrived one can deduce that ‘American’ referred only to ‘whites.’ In fact, until the 19th century, it was exclusively used for Europeans coming from specific geographical areas and with precise religious creeds.
The composed word ‘Native American’ appeared for the first time in the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ in 1737, but the meaning is not clear. However some historical references speak for themselves. For example in 1850 a group of Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the United States used with capital letters ‘Native American’ to name themselves and differentiate them from the Irish and German Catholics. In the 19th century this group created a political party called ‘Know-Nothing’ that after a few years was renamed ‘The Native American Party.’ Those first U.S. citizens maintained that only the British (Englishmen, Welshmen and Scotsmen) and the Saxonian Germans (both groups Protestant) could be considered ‘white’; the Catholic Irish and Germans were not considered ‘white’ and did not have the same rights.
The dissemination of the term ‘Native American’ for naming the Indians of the U.S. occurred much later with the civil right movements of 1960-1970. During the time of the 13 colonies, like in the rest of the hemisphere, the natives were called ‘Indians’.
We All Are Americans!
With the movements of independence the name of America was assimilated into English, Spanish and Portuguese languages thereby gaining emancipatory values. In the British, Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies the fathers of independence proclaimed the ‘American Spirit’ as an opposition to European imperialism and the European dominance in the ‘Mundus Novus.’
When Spain and Portugal were defeated (by England?), the Ibero-Americans forgot about the name ‘West Indies’ and adopted the name of America created by the Germans; hence America became the name of the whole Western Hemisphere!
Meanwhile all of the Thirteen British colonies were adopting the name ‘United States of America’, in 1800, in the Hispanic and Portuguese lands the rulers spoke of themselves as ‘American Republics.’ The words ‘America’ and ‘American’ were vastly used by Ibero-American leaders of Independence like Simon Bolivar and San Martin. Hispanic-Americans used these names for institutions, organizations, events and Pan-American conventions. For example in 1847 and 1864 in the city of Lima, Peru, ‘The American Congress’ (Congreso Americano) was celebrated. It is therefore not surprising that as soon as the new ‘American States’ were established this ‘double Americanism’ (being The United States and continent = Western Hemisphere) became controversial. In fact Spanish, Portuguese and Ibero-American politicians and intellectuals kept calling the former British colonies The United States of North America (Estados Unidos de Norteamérica) but never America, continuing to use this name for the continent.
Evidently the foundation of the United States in 1776 created an ambiguity with the name that could be used, in English, for the country and for the continent/Americas. The solution found by the Anglo-Saxon speaking countries (excluding Canada and The Caribbean) was simple and obvious: to consider that there are two continents, two Americas, a North and a South. However in many languages and cultures of the world even today there is only one American continent.
Over the years some artists and intellectuals have tried to raise awareness among local (U.S.) populations about this issue. On the big screen of Times Square in New York City in 1987 the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar presented the public an outline of the United States crossed by the sentence: ”This is not America.” Successively the word America expanded to fill the whole screen. The ‘R’ formed by the outline of the whole continent (N. and S. America) was used to indicate that the word America included the entire Western Hemisphere.
“The goal was to stimulate people to reflect upon this topic, prompting them to realize that the U.S. has appropriated the name ‘America’ and that even our everyday language forces us to imagine only one dimension of America,” said Peter Winn (History Professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts). ”Many people in the U.S. forget we share America with thirty-three other countries.”
”What makes this association of America with the United States particularly ironic,” stressed Winn,” is the fact that the name was first used in books and maps of the 16th century associated with South America after the travels of Amerigo Vespucci.”
Although for Canadians it is common practice to refer to their southern neighbors as ‘Americans’ they have not liked that the U.S. commandeered the name of the whole Western Hemisphere for its own and exclusive use. In fact Canadians use ‘United States’ or ‘United States of America’ when they talk about their border country and often use the proper name America for the whole continent. Canadian bureaucracy classifies people from the U.S. as ‘Other North Americans.’
U.S.A. English Language Exceptions
In English there are a few linguistic exceptions that use the name ‘America’ with a continental sense. Among them are ‘American Spanish’ to differentiate the Spanish spoken in Latin America to Iberian Spanish, ‘Organization of the American States’ which refers to all countries of the American continent/Americas and ‘Native Americans’ for the native peoples of the whole Western Hemisphere.
Alternative Names for the United States
From 1789 to 1939 some U.S. people tried to eliminate this appropriation suggesting new names for the U.S. and its citizens. Some of the various adjectives (for American) that were proposed are as follows: Colombian, Columbard, Fredonian, Frede, Unisian, United Statesian, Colonican, Appalachian, Usian, Washingtonian, Usonian, Uessiam, U-S-ian, Uesican and United Stater. The most popular alternative name for the country (The United States of America) was ‘Columbia’; but none of these were ever adopted.
”America for the Americans”
It was the famous slogan from the Monroe Doctrine of the first decades of the 19th century ‘”America for the Americans” that became particularly ironic for the Americans who were not from the U.S.: which America and for which Americans? It is not a coincidence that in exactly those years Ibero Americans started to feel the need for an alternative name.
Irony of history: once again it was not the Ibero-American countries who created the name ‘Latin America,’ it was The French who were interested in gaining influence over those areas now that Spain and Portugal were no longer superpowers. French thinking proposed a conceptual model that became the basis of the term ‘Latin America.’
In 1836 the French economist and politician Michel Chevalier published the chronicles of his travels in the American Continent/Americas. In them he wrote ”The two branches of Europe, Latin (7) and German, are reproduced in the ‘New World.’ South-America is Latin and Catholic like Southern Europe. North America belongs to a Protestant and Anglo-Saxon population.” It was then that many European and Hispanic-American intellectuals and politicians started to use the adjective ‘Latino’ to emphasize the differences between those countries and the United States. The French government was obviously enthusiastic. ”Only France” (who was competing with England for the control of the world) ”can prevent these Latin families from sinking into the double inundation of Germans and Anglo-Saxons,” wrote Chevalier. As a consequence the Ibero-American markets were filled with French products while the French obtained privileged access to raw materials. It was in the name of these ideas that a French government was established in Mexico in 1861 and 1867.
In 1848 the name ‘Latin America’ was used for the first time to refer to an international organization: The Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) of the United Nations. After WWII, in U.S. universities the terminology ‘Latin American Studies’ became the favorite name to call academic studies on all southern countries, including the Caribbean.
”In reality the development of the Latin American identity has become a mechanism of internalization of an identity created by other countries with other cultures. Paradoxically progress after Independence has been nourished by European values and traditions” (English, French and then from the U.S.) said Philip Swanson of the Hispanic-American Studies Department of Shieffield University in the U.K.
It is evident that only a history of dependence and colonialism allows the grouping together, under the name Latin America, so many countries with so many different peoples: former Caribbean-English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Indeed Latin America is not a cultural, historical, ethnic or even an economic unity but a geopolitical category. The name Latin America joins together countries with the most viable economies and historically the most dependent.
For many Latin Americans it is also a name exclusive and deceitful. In Latin America there are areas that were dominated by the English and the Dutch, that are not Latin. In North America there are areas that were dominated by the French and the Spanish but are not considered Latin. Moreover numerous native populations can’t consider themselves Latin and are excluded from a name given to the region in which they live. The same can be said for Latin American-African, Asian, Arab, Jew, Germanic, Slavic, Anglo-Saxon and Irish descendants.
‘America’ and ‘American’ (words) in the World
In Japanese a U.S. citizen is an ‘Amerika-jin.’
In Russian a man from the U.S. is an ‘Amerikanec’, a woman an ‘Amerikanka.’
In Chinese ‘Meriguó’ is the United States, ‘Meizhou’ the American continent/Americas: ‘guo’ country and ‘zhou’ continent.
In the French ‘Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique’ and in ‘The Petit Robert des Nomes Propres’ the singular form of America is used for the continent (Western Hemisphere) but it is becoming more and more common to use it as a synonym of the United States.
German dictionaries also define America as one continent- but today German people use America and Americans for the U.S. and it’s citizens.
In Italian ‘The Enciclopedia Traccani’ defines the name ‘America’ as the continent (the Western Hemisphere) and American whoever was or is born there. The media and people usually use it to name the United States and the same happens with the adjective ‘American.’
In the ‘Cambridge English Dictionary. America: ”The United States of America or North America and/or South America. American: ”of or relating to The United States; of or relating to North or South America”.
In the ‘Oxford English Dictionary. America: ”A land mass of the western hemisphere consisting of North and South America; used as a name for the United States.” American: ”Relating to or characteristic of the United States or its inhabitants; relating to the continents of America”
‘The Real Academia Spanish Dictionary’ (Diccionario de la Real Academia Española) recently has modified the definitions of ‘America’ and ‘American’ stressing that at present these two words are used referring to the United States and citizens, but advises against the use of them with these erroneous meanings. In Spanish there is only ONE American Continent as in most European Languages.
Sadly for most ‘Americans’ born outside the U.S. it is clear that nowadays the whole world is getting accustomed to using ‘America’ and ‘American’ only to refer to the United States and its citizens. This dissemination is due to the U.S. economic and cultural influence and, unquestionably, by the use of these words as synonyms for the United States of America by international media be it print, radio, television or film.
Searching For Its Own Identity?
As we have seen the names ‘America’ and ‘Latin America’ have not been created by the Ibero-Americans but by foreign forces. Now, many are questioning the term Latin America. Many more, pushed by resentment, are still fighting the nostalgic and likely hopeless struggle to repossess the name of America.
Currently, the most powerful media of the region like the Venezuelan Telesur, as well as many more Hispanic-American journalists, are relaunching reflections born in the first decades of Independence. Mainly reconsiderations and reformulations like the ideas of the Cuban intellectual José Martí, who in his essay “Our America” (8) warned about U.S. influence and cultural penetration into the region and of the Uruguayan intellectual Enrique Rodó: in his book ‘Ariel’ Rodó’ emphasized that the existing unity between Hispanic-American countries is stronger than the dissimilarities that divide them, stressing the need for a union. Paradoxically, the same Hispanic-American journalists are re-proposing the identical embarrassing phenomenon of foreign concepts that have characterized the history of that part of the ‘New World.’ In the past many Latin Americans referred to the The Western Hemisphere only as America. Now Latin American media is using ‘Americas’ so often that Latin Americans are starting to use it too, with greater frequency, and that means Latin Americans are internalizing the English-speaking-worlds cultural vision of two continents: the Americas.
This internalization is also in action in Europe and very likely in the entire world.
Naming Is Appropriating
Surprisingly – but also of obvious historical consequence – today the group most aware of this linguistic phenomenon seem to be the ‘Native Americans’ of the Western Hemisphere. In fact they are the most active in this battle of naming.
During the second Summit of Native Peoples of the Americas (Cumbre de los Pueblos Originarios Americanos) (9) celebrated in Quito, Ecuador in 2004, the name ‘Abya Yala’ was used for the first time to designate the whole Western Hemisphere. Currently many native associations, organizations, communities, institutions and representatives of the American Continent/Americas have adopted it.
”Abya Yala ”is a name well known in some circles in the United States,” says Indian County Today Media Network, “mainly in the south-west and in Southern California however it is not a ‘universal’ name yet.”
”It is still an open question in my book but in the South of the U.S. they are already using it,” confirms Antot Masuka of Native American Indian Culture.
Abya Yala means: saved, favorite, bloody territory of the Big Mother. This name was given to the continent/Americas by the Kuna natives, an American Indian culture, who settled on the mountains of Darien in Panama, before the arrival of the Europeans. It is one of the few old native names that has survived until today.
”Abya Yala wants to attract attention to the idea that a different system can be prefigured and is possible. Naming things like lakes and lands is appropriating. It is to take control of a space. This is exactly what native peoples are proposing with this ‘new’ lexicon,” explains the Tupi Guarani native peoples website Chronicles of the Land without Evil (Cronicas de la Tierra sin Mal).
History demonstrates that words can change their meaning from one day to the next. Creating names is a human constant. Therefore it is not ridiculous to question the name given to a continent or hemisphere, especially in a continent/Hemisphere in which every day more and more people are reviewing their history, in which native peoples are gaining more visibility and influence and in which cultural and ethnic miscegenation force is particularly strong and unrestrained…
Could the native peoples be the ones to solve the problem with the name of America?
”There will come a day in which the European names will disappear from the countries of the ‘New World’ and the old ones will be restored,” said the monk Servango Teresa de Mier in the 19th century in New Spain (10). Only time will tell.
(1) Some researchers say Christopher Columbus was a Sephardi Jew of Genoa, others a Catalan aristocrat, others a Galician, others a Portuguese.
(2) It is certain that Amerigo Vespucci made three travels, two for the Castilian-Aragonese crown, one for the Portuguese.
(3) The ‘Germanic’ invented typography.
(4) Ptolemy World Map. Copies of the original have never been found however we know it was made by the Egyptian-Greek astronomer, astrologer, chemist, geographer, mathematician Claudius Ptolemy around 150 BCE. It is the first World Map we know of and this was the image that Europeans had before the discovery of the American continent/Americas and the map of Amerigo Vespucci.
(5) Curiously the name ‘West Indies’ has survived until today in some former Caribbean British colonies.
(6) The Naming of Native Americans, Indios and Indians. ”There is also some confusion about the words Indian and Indio, a mistaken belief that they refer somehow to the country, India. When Columbus washed up on the beach in the Caribbean, he was not looking for a country called India. Europeans were calling that country Hindustan in 1492. Look it up on the old maps. Columbus called the tribal people he met “Indio,” from the Italian ”in Dio”, meaning “in God,” asserted Russell Means, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe (Sioux) and perhaps the most outsized personality in the American Indian Movement, in a speech in 1980.
(7) Latin: the language of Ancient Rome and of the peoples conquered by it.
(8) The Americas in Latin America. Latin Americans started to use this plural proper noun when the Thirteen Colonies of England proclaimed their Independence and adopted the name of the United States of America giving rise to ambiguity as the name of America was used for the nation as well as for the whole Western Hemisphere. It was then that Hispanic Americans began talking of ‘our America’ in opposition to the English speaking America, and to use, occasionally, the plural name. But even then for them only one American continent continued to exist.
(9) ‘Original Peoples’ (pueblos originarios): this composed word is part of a new lexicon adopted by Ibero-American native communities to overcome Eurocentric definitions and words like indigenous, aboriginal, Indio and Indian. In Canada they use ‘Premiere Nations’ and ‘First Peoples’; In the United States since 1969 ‘American Indian’ and ‘Native American’ is used (for native Americans from the whole continent/Hemisphere.)
(10) The Spaniards divided their overseas possessions into two administrative blocks: the Viceroyalty of New Spain – from current Costa Rica to a considerable part of current U.S., including the Caribbean Islands – with its capital in present Mexico City; and The Vice-royalty of Peru or New Castile- from Panama to Patagonia- with its capital in Lima. Brazil was a Portuguese colony.
* COLONIST, COLONY, COLOMBIA & COLUMBIA. The word ‘colony’ and the verb to colonize don’t derive from the name of Columbus as can be easy thought as his Spanish name is ‘Colon’. The verb colonize comes from the Latin word ‘colonia’ (territory established by foreign people). From Columbus’ name originates the names ‘Colombia’ in South America and Columbia in the United States.
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