I mean my Question more as a matter of cultural conceptions rather than translation as such.

Coming from the English-speaking (y originalmente no hablaba español en absoluto) side of the equation, it has so far been only a few years since I learned, much to my surprise, that in Spanish (for the most part, at least in Latin America and in Europe), North and South America are not in fact two discrete continents, but rather a single one, generally referred to as, simply, América.

Quite logically, it follows that anyone from any part of [the] America(s) is an American. The trick with this, however, is the fact that, not only in the USA or even exclusively in English, the term "American" typically tends to connote a person specifically from the country called the United States of America.

Both in English and in Spanish, a shortcut around this confusion seems to be the terms Latin America(n\s), hispanoamericanos, and such the like, which cover the vast majority of the non-anglophone parts of América.

But is it at all common for people from América Latina, whether in English or Spanish, to casually refer to themselves simply as "Americans/ americanos" sans any qualifiers and generally without expecting the risk of confusion (unless, say, they come from a Spanish-speaking U.S. territory such as Puerto Rico is)?

Many English-speakers that I know would affirm what seems to be obvious, that someone from a continent called "America" (North, South, Central or however you'd want to parse it) is undoubtedly an American. For the most part though, my understanding and experience is that the conception of "American" as referring exclusively to people from the USA is pervasive enough that I have Canadian friends who are quick to eschew the term, emphasising a distinction between themselves and U.S. citizens, while I have Mexican friends who seem bewildered at the discovery of the idea that in English they are not "Americans" as obviously as they've always been precisely that in Spanish.

Further to that, when hispanohablantes [those among them who are not also English-speakers] hear U.S. citizens referred to as "Americans" and the nation of the USA called simply "America," is that generally a source of confusion for them, since, if I understand the use of the terms correctly, in Spanish these terms equate, not to a single country and its inhabitants alone, but to an entire continent and the constituents thereof? Does it tend to create situations in which one wonders: "Hmmm ... ¿Pero de qué parte del vasto continente americano estamos hablando aquí?"

I recently asked a Mexican and an Argentine this question. They're both fluent in English, though. The Argentine simply said that latinoamericanos understand this terminology as "a mistake" made by people from the USA. Is there anything more to it than that? Or is it just as simple as my Argentinian friend puts it?

  • From what I have seen, there are tons of Spanish-speaking North and South Americans (who are not from the US) who call people from the US "americanos," although offhandedly I think North Americans are more likely to do it due to their proximity to the US (you did not say what your Mexican friend said...), and there are tons of others who will tell them they are making a mistake. I must have seen this about a dozen times on YouTube in the comments section.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 27, 2020 at 1:27
  • That's why you can find posts like this or this. But as to the relative frequency of people who say "american@" and mean the United States, people who say "american@" and mean the continent(s), and people who specifically don't say "american@" to mean the country, I would not know.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 27, 2020 at 1:35
  • In Argentina, anyone that says "americano" meaning "estadounidense" will be mocked, a lot.
    – Gaviota
    Dec 27, 2020 at 8:16
  • @Obie2.0 - My Mexican friend kinda just laughed it off. (She's also been a U.S. citizen for like half her life, so I don't know if that's a factor in her perception of the question. Also I did kinda struggle to articulate exactly what I was getting at with this when I talked to her, hence why I'm casting it out here on StackExchange x-D )
    – Adinkra
    Dec 27, 2020 at 15:53
  • 1
    @Adinkra Sure. The only meaning the word has is "from America", and for us, America is the continent. Depending of context we may use "latinoamericano" or "sudamericano" or "hispanoamericano" instead. But "americano" will in any case refer to someone from the continent, not from the US.
    – Gaviota
    Dec 27, 2020 at 16:44

1 Answer 1


This topic calls for an entire essay but it suffices to say that, as you've already noticed, americano/a is not a generally good translation for (US American) "American" in all situations and, in the particular case of the modern (historically speaking), non-anachronistic designation of United States nationals, it's often a source of conflict. I say conflict, not misunderstanding, because a lot of Spanish-speaking people outside the US, even if they've never met someone from the US and don't speak English at all, know what "American" means in the US, and resent it as an appropriation (of a whole continent, no less!).

I know no Spanish-speaking people (outside the US) who call themselves americanos meaning "from the American continent". It's always latinoamericanos or, in some fancy circles, hispanoamericanos (the root of that has to do with what Brazilians call themselves, if anything). I have no idea if people from other continents, when residing there in their own countries, call themselves by the name of their continent in normal discourse (e.g. do people from Nigeria ever refer to themselves as Africans, outside of specific political contexts?); it sounds weird to me and, I'm sure, to most of my compatriots. We're argentinos and, if pressed, latinoamericanos—a cultural more than geographical designation.

There's an unspoken consensus that, no matter what we think, americano in certain contexts means "US American". Fútbol americano is never mistaken for "football played in our continent". The classic German movie Der amerikanische Freund is translated as El amigo americano and I don't think anyone ever imagined the friend was other than a US native. We know it's not really a mistake by US natives; they're just oblivious to it. Personally I think it's rather stupid to get mad at them, as some people certainly do.

Outside of those contexts, the word does mean "American" in the geographical sense. If I read in an anthropology book that Los primeros americanos vinieron de Asia a través del estrecho de Bering, it's obvious that it refers to "the first human inhabitants of the American continent".

  • Love the fútbol americano & Der amerikanische Freund examples. I do believe that by "mistake" my Argentinian friend means obliviousness the way you've described it. & I like the point how context would inform which "americanos" we're talking about at a given time.
    – Adinkra
    Dec 27, 2020 at 15:37
  • In my experience, by the way, a certain Pan-African sentiment does seem to have diffused, in a lot of scenarios, into general culture, so that even outside necessarily political discourse, you would in fact find Kenyans or Nigerians (e.g.) who refer to themselves simply as Africans. But very similarly to your point ref. "latinoamericanos," it is in fact more of a cultural than geographical label: there are also some people from the continent who, for a variety of reasons, find the label to be weird.
    – Adinkra
    Dec 27, 2020 at 15:38
  • FYI When you say "call themselves by the name of their continent in normal discourse", you obviously haven't encountered Australians. But then again we're blessed in that our country is a continent :)
    – Peter M
    Dec 27, 2020 at 16:07
  • 2
    @PeterM - You would not be Oceanians, then? :D
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 27, 2020 at 17:37
  • @pablodf76 - Wouldn't you agree that it is fairly common to find people from at least some Spanish-speaking countries in America using the term "american@" to refer to Americans from the United States of America, even as others from the same country reject such a usage? It seems like I see it all the time online, particularly in adjective form. Someone (who is not from the US, Spain, or Equatorial Guinea) will write "los americanos hicieron esto" and then there will be another comment along the lines of "todos somos americanos" or "¿quieres decir los estadounidenses/norteamericanos?"
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 27, 2020 at 17:46

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