The expression "ugly American" evidently became famous through a novel—William J. Lederer & Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American (1958). The title character, Homer Atkins, although physically unattractive, is a capable engineer and an honest representative of U.S. interests abroad (specifically, in a fictionalized Burma), but he is appalled and frustrated by the incompetence, greed, and arrogance of other U.S. representatives. One of the ironies of the book is that the physically ugly American is among the most admirable Americans.

But as the cover of a 1999 reissue of the novel observes, the book's title "became a synonym for what was wrong with American foreign policy." And at some point, the meaning of the term expanded to cover any rude, oblivious, entitled U.S. citizen abroad, whether the person is associated with the U.S. government or not.

My question is, when did this change in the understood meaning of "ugly American" from a literal description of Homer Atkins to a figurative description of a stereotypically ignorant, abrasive, entitled U.S. citizen abroad occur?

I checked a number of dictionaries of idioms, slang, and clichés, and could not find any account of when the pejorative sense of "ugly American" emerged. An item in the Congressional Record of June 9, 1960, however suggests that it may have happened rather quickly:

Mr. [Frank] BOW [of Ohio]. Mr. Speaker, the Department of State may well be proud of Miss Frances Knight, Director of the U.S. Passport Office.

In many instances State Department personnel are subject to criticism and ridicule, many times without justification. My knowledge of them is that they are generally a very fine group of devoted public servants, dedicated Americans.

However, Miss Knight's article "Don't Be an 'Ugly American,'" inserted in the Congressional Record of June 6, 1960, is proof positive of a sincere desire to create a proper and true image of Americans abroad. As in the State Department, so among our tourists abroad, a small minority cast unfortunate shadows on the unoffending majority.

Evidently, Knight's article, which appeared originally in Parade Magazine (June 5, 1960) was an argument and a plea for U.S. tourists to express their patriotism by improving their manners and respect for the countries and people they visited while traveling abroad.

Is there any evidence that the figurative meaning of "ugly American" that Knight invokes arose even earlier than June 1960?

  • The title of this book is the first non-figurative use I've seen.
    – Mitch
    Jun 13, 2018 at 22:10
  • 4
    My impression is that the idea of the figurative usage of “ugly American”, apart from the character, is dealt with in the book itself, possibly referring to earlier reference to Americans who behave badly abroad as suggested here: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugly_American_(pejorative)
    – user 66974
    Jun 13, 2018 at 22:14
  • In the book, a fictional Burmese journalist wrote, "For some reason, the people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They're loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they're frightened and defensive, or maybe they're not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance."
    – user 66974
    Jun 13, 2018 at 22:15
  • 1
    The idea of the ignorant or badly behaving American traveler long predates this book. Mark Twain wrote about The Innocents Abroad in the nineteenth century, and Algonquin Round Table member Donald Ogden Stewart wrote Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad in 1924.
    – user 66974
    Jun 13, 2018 at 22:15
  • 1
    Was the title ever meant to be just a description of Atkins?
    – muru
    Jun 14, 2018 at 3:18

4 Answers 4


When some forty churchwomen met in the small East Texas town of Rusk for their regular meeting at the Presbyterian church on 20 March 1959, they heard a guest speaker review one of the most discussed books of the day:

Mr. Gene Presley has been secured as guest speaker, and will review the book, "The Ugly American." This is a novel based on the life of an American ambassador to foreign countries and reflects the opinions of other people toward Americans. — The Rusk Cherokeean, 19 March 1959.

Whether they read the book or not, any American who stumbled across a newspaper review or an innocuous notice like this knew it was about an ambassador and how the world viewed Americans. In other words, there was no broadening application to the behavior of Americans abroad; in the popular imagination, that’s what the book was about.

Nancy was not the typical tourist, the "ugly American." She had come to live and to learn. — 885 (campus newspaper, Boston College), 1 Dec. 1959.

Thus, speaking of Pres. Kennedy’s Peace Corps initiative, the Birmingham (Eng.) Daily Post hopes

… that the President's initiative should do something to destroy the image of the ugly American. The American abroad has often been his country's worst ambassador. — Birmingham Daily Post, 2 March 1961. BNA (paywall)

Whether individuals or groups of Americans abroad were termed “ugly” before the book’s publication — by, one assumes, other, better behaved Americans — the book and its reception transformed the phrase into a popularly understood stereotype, even in East Texas.

  • Thanks, KarlG. Thus far, the Boston College article you cite from December 1959 seems to be the earliest instance of the relevant figurative usage—and it is significantly earlier than Frances Knight's June 1960 article, suggesting that the usage was already up and about by the turn of the year.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 14, 2018 at 2:13

The Ugly American

The term was used as the title of a 1948 photograph of an American tourist in Havana by the Cuban photographer Constantino Arias. Richard P. Horwitz, Ed.,The American Studies Anthology

American in Havana

My sense of this is of a pejorative nature and it predates the book and the congressional record entry of 1960. But I do not purport that this answers your question.

Wikipedia relates badly behaving American travelers to Twain and D. O. Stewart. ugly American - pejorative

This ngram shows even earlier use of ugly American. I reviewed the summary of each from 1800 to 1950 (only 3 pages worth). They describe ugly buildings, ugly people but nothing to suggest to me the figurative transition you seek.

ngram 'ugly american'

There are also references to post '9/11' and the actions, primarily militarily, that earn the figurative sense. gnovis.com

“Are You An Ugly American?” This term, in its post-9/11 reemergence, created a common enemy among the actors on the international stage whom have most critically written that “it is not the American who is ugly but America which is ugly”

  • Why is the window in the Ngram dated 1871? This gives a very biased and inaccurate view point. When would "ugly American" be written in block capital letters? And one last thing, where is the Ngram link and did you search using the AmEng corpus or English?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 9, 2019 at 5:34

There are references from as early as the 1870s to descriptions of certain things as "ugly American (noun)", but the first I've found that describes people, specifically travelers abroad, is one from 1909, written by an unknown person and published in the Franklin (Ill.) Reporter.

The story, "A Trip to the Island Empire," is about a trip to Japan, and spans several issues of this publication. In the February 4, 1909, installment, we find this paragraph (emphasis mine):

Arriving at Miyanoshita we were at once captivated by the charming place. We would like to have remained there indefinitely. No wonder the crown prince esteems his palace there among all others. But as usual, there were some people who make one tired. Ugly American women in short, uncouth black shirt waists, and readymade shirt waists, red, weather beaten faces and felt hats. They had no figures and esteemed themselves much cultured. Why, a certain class of American travelers set themselves up like the English women who go to Italy to spend the summer, because it is cheap and a good place to wear out old clothes, is more than I can understand, and I am ashamed every time I see them.

So, these are slovenly-dressed American travelers who consider themselves cultured, but who embarrass their fellow Americans by their dress and boorishness.

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  • 8
    But that article appears to be using the term literally, not figuratively.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 13, 2018 at 23:12
  • 3
    I don't think your citation is an example of the usage as a set phrase. Ugly seems to be used to modify "American women" and not Americans in general.
    – Robusto
    Jun 13, 2018 at 23:16
  • "Ugly American women" refers directly to their lack of attractiveness, see "They had no figures [likely overweight] and esteemed themselves much cultured."
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 9, 2019 at 5:42

The literally ugly 'ugly American'

The earliest instances of "ugly American" that appear in connection with the novel by Lederer and Burdick recognize that the term refers to the physical appearance of the engineer Homer Atkins. For example, Carol Harding, "Book Reviews from the P.V. Library," in the Palos Verdes [California] Peninsula News (December 11, 1958) offers this brief summary of the novel:

Two master storytellers have written a bitter and highly readable book of topical importance. This novel is about men and women in Southeast Asia—people making mistakes, people trapped by the beauty of a land or of a woman. It is particularly concerned with an ugly engineer who works productive miracles with lengths of bamboo and an old bicycle.

And Charldean Newell, “Engineer Doubles as U.S. Diplomat,” in the [Denton, Texas] Campus Chat (March 6, 1959) has this:

Lederer and Burdick have written a book about a fictional American engineer, but that engineer is typical of a small group of Americans who understand foreign peoples and who serve as good will ambassadors for the U.S. in other nations.


Atkins, called "ugly" because of his battered appearance, and his wife Emma fly to Sarkhan. They move into a small cottage in a suburb of Haidho.


The ugly American knows he cannot convince the people of the wrongness of their method [of irrigation] until he has proof of a substitute.

Both of these reviewers understand that the novel uses the phrase "ugly American" as a literal description. In this regard, the usage is indistinguishable from the one that appears in Thomas Rourke, Stallion from the North (1932) [combined snippets]:

...turned him down. The American got her for nothing—an ugly American at that."

Everyone howled.

"That's he! That's the ugly American," they all shouted, laughing at me.

The cossack rocked with laughter.

"Well, well, well. But you aren't a beauty, you know."

The figuratively ugly ‘ugly American’

From Roscoe Drummond, "The 'Ugly Congressman'" in the Stanford [California] Daily (March 30, 1959):

By now members of Congress must have a pretty good idea how distressed foreign service officers are to see so many taking the novel, "The Ugly American," as the typical U. S. diplomat.

For weeks the newspapers have been reporting the news of how Congressmen are packing their payrolls with relatives, paying some children attending college high salaries for work way beyond their experience; how some use government money to pay henchmen back home to do political chores; how another Congressman paid himself rent for the use of his front porch as an alleged "office," and all the while trying to cover it up with that curtain of "classified" secrecy which they criticize so virtuously when the executive branch of the government does the same thing.

It is well to have all this in the open. It is the only way it will be cor[r]ected. But just as the "Ugly American" is a portrait of the exception among Americans serving abroad, so the "ugly Congressman"—who hires his relatives in order to keep his office-pay allowances in the family and who is so proud of it that he wants to keep it secret—is the exception among honest and honorable members of Congress.

This piece appeared as a fill-in column for Walter Lippmann, a very influential syndicated columnist who had won a special Pulitzer Prize for journalism the year before but who was vacationing in Europe and therefore unavailable to submit his usual columns. Drummond evidently interprets "ugly American" as meaning "incompetent or corrupt American diplomat"—which runs counter to the sense of the term in the novel—and he emphasizes that these features are the exception rather than the rule among members of the U.S. foreign service, just as (according to Drummond) "ugly Congressmen" are less common than honest and honorable ones.

From Vic Emmanuel, "'Splendid American' Not 'Ugly' in Laos," in the [Houston, Texas] Rice Thresher (October 2, 1959):

Last Sunday night at 10:30 o’clock ABC carried an excellent documentary titled "The Splendid American," narrated by John Daly. This program was a reaction to the best selling novel by Lederer and Burdick, The Ugly American.


The prime example of "The Splendid American" was Dr. Thomas Dooley, who has set up several hospitals and clinics in L[ao]s. His main goal in setting up a clinic is to make it self-sufficient in terms of personnel.

Most Americans in Laos work for a very small salary in some cases $60 per month, and use few U.S. dollars in performing their job. This is the American, ugly or splendid.

Obviously the documentary project viewed splendid as the opposite of ugly as a description of U.S. foreign aid workers overseas—and that is certainly how the author of this article interpreted it.

From Drew Pearson "Filipinos' Literacy Rate Is Termed High" in the Madera [California] Tribune (December 28, 1959):

MANILA, P. I. The Filipinos are our best friends in the Far East and we can be proud of the democracy we have helped them build. But we seem to have an irresistible proclivity for kicking our best friends in the seat of the pants.

This is especially true of congressmen. They no sooner get off their free government plane and check into their hotel, usually paid for by the government, but they issue statements calculated to undercut the American-Philippine alliance.

The tactics of some "ugly" American personnel in shutting themselves up in exclusive groups along Dewey blvd. or in military reservations has the same effect.

The Filipinos however are patient people. Despite the congressmen and the "ugly Americans" the alliance is still strong.

Pearson was an extremely influential syndicated columnist in the United States, and his column Washington Merry-Go-Round appeared in hundreds of U.S. newspapers, so his short-hand use of "ugly American" to refer to out-of-touch cocktail-party-focused U.S. diplomats is strong evidence that this interpretation of "ugly American" was firmly established by the end of 1959.

The authors strike back—to no avail

Perhaps the most interesting early instance is an article by Lederer and Burdick themselves, titled "Salute to Deeds of Non-Ugly Americans: Controversial Novel's Authors Urge Strong Foreign Aid, Telling of Devoted People Who, Like the Book’s Hero, Selflessly Help World Needy," in Life (December 7, 1959), which praises dedicated U.S. citizens whether they are employed by the government or working independently of it:

More than anything else we were depressed that so many readers should fail to appreciate the fact that thousands of "ugly Americans" overseas are doing practical work with a no-nonsense application of elbow grease. In a large sense we wrote our book to praise them. Thousands of Americans are performing their good works in the line of duty, as employees of the State Department, the International Cooperation Administration and other government agencies. Still others are doing it entirely on their own—which, in a way, makes their efforts even more spectacular.

Unmistakably, the authors are trying to reassert their original, rather startling view that the "ugly American" is the admirable American—but just as clearly, Life magazine is pushing in the opposite direction, insisting that U.S. citizens who perform good works abroad are "non-ugly." Thus the blurb for the article in the magazine’s table of contents reads as follows:

Not ugly at all

The authors of The Ugly American, the best-selling novel exposing U.S. bumblers abroad, tell about Americans in Asia whose work is handsome indeed.

To the extent that the authors had hoped to clarify that "ugly American" as a description of the character of Homer Atkins and real-life people like him, they were frustrated by Life’s effort to play up "non-ugly" as a character assessment. It is also noteworthy that Lederer and Burdick extend the category of "ugly Americans" to include people not employed by the U.S. government. Although popular usage reversed the meaning that they attempted to associate with “ugly American,” it agreed with them in making it applicable to any U.S. citizen abroad, as is evident in Kathy Gately, "Nancy Madden: A Summer Ambassador to Turkey," in the [Boston] Eight Eighty-Five (December 1959) [cited in KarlG’s succinct and informative answer]:

Summer '59 brought Nancy Madden to Newfoundland, Scotland, Frankfort on the Rhine, and finally her ultimate destination, Ankara, Turkey, where she joined her Navy family. Nancy was not the typical tourist, the "ugly American." She had come to live and to learn.


The Ugly American was a tremendously influential—and somewhat widely read—novel. Daniel Runde, "Are Americans as 'Ugly' as Ever," Foreign Policy (February 2018), asserts that “The Ugly American is easily the Silent Spring [Rachel Carson's book about the effects of widespread use DDT and other pesticides] of U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance policy.” In particular, Runde says,

The novel, however, is credited with spurring a massive reorganization of America’s economic and diplomatic engagement with developing countries then emerging from European colonialism. [President John] Kennedy set about taking a series of sweeping steps in 1961: He set up the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, added to U.S. Army special forces (the Green Berets), proposed the reorganization of foreign assistance through the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, and created the Peace Corps.

At least some of these steps represent parts of a considered effort to change the face of U.S. presence abroad from cocktail party diplomacy conducted by foreign policy dilettantes to on-the-ground service by dedicated personnel trained to work cooperatively and respectfully with the people of their host countries.

Nevertheless, the authors’ decision to name the novel after the physical appearance of its most admirable character was very quickly misunderstood by the U.S. public—many of whom, no doubt, knew the book only by its title and by its reputation for criticizing U.S. diplomatic fecklessness and hubris. Such popular misunderstandings are not unusual in connection with books that are much more talked about than read.

By March 30, 1959, widely read newspaper columnists were already misrepresenting the meaning of "ugly American" in the novel, encouraging the spread of the popular misconception that "ugly American" in the book referred to an out-of-touch, self-interested career diplomat with no feeling for the country in which he or she is serving.

By the end of December 1959, examples began to appear in which the meaning of "ugly American" extended beyond government functionaries to include private U.S. citizens working or even just vacationing abroad. Although the authors of the novel sought in a Life magazine article to reestablish "ugly American" as an epithet of honor, the tendency of popular usage was firmly against them and ultimately swept away their counterintuitive understanding of the term.

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