People often refer to the country US as America and to the people from the US as Americans.

As far as I know, that's the only case in the world where a continent's name is used for a country's name (let me know if I'm wrong). Why does that happen?


6 Answers 6


This is a topic that leads to huge debates (and often flamewars) online whenever it is brought up.

Logically, it makes perfect sense to use "America" and "Americans" for this country. The name of the country is "United States of America". Why would it be strange to shorten this? It is common to shorten the official name of a country — most people don't even know the official names for the various countries. For example, the official name of Mexico is "los Estados Unidos Mexicanos", which means "the Mexican United States"; nobody is surprised that it is referred to as "Mexico". People would be surprised if you called them the "EUM". (Also, this example shows that even "United States" is not a unique term to one country.)

Australia is officially known as "the Commonwealth of Australia", but we are happy to simply call them "Australians", even though it is also the name of a continent. Depending on how you do your geography, the Australian continent also contains other countries aside from the "COA".

Lastly, I just want to point out that there is no single continent called "America". There is one called "North America" and another called "South America", which are sometimes collectively referred to as "the Americas".

I think the strange thing is not that people from the USA call themselves "Americans", it is actually more strange that the full official name or an acronym is used so often.

  • 3
    @Bruno - Central America is not a continent.
    – Dusty
    Commented Nov 16, 2010 at 15:51
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    @Dusty - well, I remember that this was what I learned at school. Americas = North America + Central America + South America. Apparently this was a different region classification system then.
    – b.roth
    Commented Nov 16, 2010 at 16:03
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    @Bruno - there are several ways to break the "Americas" into geographic regions (I've frequently seen it as NA+CA+SA+Caribbean). However, I've never seen anything that referred to Central America as a continent (it's typically a sub-continent I believe), which is the system Kosmonaut used in his answer.
    – Dusty
    Commented Nov 16, 2010 at 16:20
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    So in other words, the problem is that the founders chose an overly broad term. They should probably have run it by a focus group or two first.
    – mmyers
    Commented Nov 16, 2010 at 16:24
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    It doesn't make sense. Like it wouldn't make sense to call Australia just Commonwealth. The Of is the important here. Is United States of America. Is like La Repubilca Argentina. The short title would be Argentina, because Republic is used to call all the republican countries. If some European country would have the word Europa in its title, it wouldn't be correct to call the country Europa. It makes sense that a country mentions the continent in its title, but not the other way around.
    – limoragni
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 0:43

I thought Australia was part of Oceania; when did this change and Australia became a continent itself?

By the way, America is the whole continent; the subdivisions are only for the sake of geographic or geological study, but the continental plate is America.

Every time we, people who live in any place besides the United States of America, feel embarrassed when we hear about "being American is", "the spirit of America is", and such utterances. Because we're not "US citizens" nor will we ever be considered in that way, but we indeed live in “America”, so we could be proudly called Americans, but the patronimious (how do you say it in English?) has become synonymous of US citizens, politics, mind, behavior. Sometimes we don't agree in no way with any of those points, and we feel excluded with a word that should unite us.

That said, I dare to say that using Americans for the citizenship of the United States is wrong for the rest of the continent, but as it has been used constantly by the United States all over the globe, that use have given another meaning to the word, succeeding in segregating people who feels America is also its land.

When I traveled to Europe, every time I was asked if I was from America, I corrected them to the name of my own country and emphasized that we're not in America (strange to say indeed).

By the way, in general Europeans understand the concept pretty well, but US citizens don't, and in general they don't even understand what they have done with the word. It’s like they are humans so the citizens of United States are called humans. Imagine the rest of the world should feel not so good about being called humans when they live in let's say, Russia?

Nothing against the United States anyway. Just to clear things up.

  • 4
    Australia definitely is on its very own continental plate. I was always taught that it is a continent: only continent that is also considered an island; only country that is also a continent, etc. North and South America are indeed separate continents. For a long while North America was drifting off by itself, while South America was drifting off in a mass with Australia and Antarctica.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 18:33
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    USA: 7 continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, North America, South America. Europe and rest of the world: 6 continents: Europa, Asia, África, Oceanía, Antártica, América. Scientifics: 6 continents: Eurasia, Africa, Australia, Anarctica, North America, SOuth America. In spanish the continent is Oceanía, not Australia.
    – Billeeb
    Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 19:27
  • Interesting. I can quibble with minor things on each list (including the USA one). In fact, I think both the non-"USA" lists have quite a few points of superiority. But a reasonable person will let slide minor quibbles. However, any list that does not separate North and South America is just way way wrong. N. America has had some kind of (often weak) connection to Eurasia far longer than it had any direct connection with S. America.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 19:58
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    Actually, that's my basis for claiming that a lot of the other lists are superior in many ways. Australia is on a plate with New Guinea, so calling them both (with some other stuff on that same plate) "Oceana" is more technically correct. I'd also argue for India as a proper contient (and Europe as an integral part of greater Eurasia). However, if you take this attitude, you have a lot of trouble drawing the line, as "plates" are actually made up of lots of little tiny plates, and nobody's up to memorizing thousands of little plate names.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 20:48
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    How does this answer the question?
    – user867
    Commented Aug 12, 2013 at 5:29

It's actually just the result of using half of the country's full name to save time. The country is officially called "the United States of America".

In fact, if you think about it, something like "the United States" doesn't quality as an unambiguous country name. There were many city-states in Europe, a lot of which united under the rules of different kings. These were united states, as well. Japan has several prefectures which are essentially states in their own right. These are united under the Japanese government. We could use united states (or united prefectures) to refer to these.

The Western world was named after Amerigo Vespucci, which led to the continents being named "North America" and "South America". At first America was a collection of several colonies, each with their own currency and government. When several states within North America all united to form a single government, they called themselves the "United States of America".

Some people abbreviate this as "United States", others as "America", others as "USA".

  • 4
    While it's true that there are plenty of countries which have a federal structure like the USA, a key difference is that most don't use the words "united states" in their official name. Hence there is little ambiguity in using that term to refer to the USA (though as mentioned in the question, you could in theory be referring to Mexico). Commented Nov 16, 2010 at 15:55
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    There are plenty of other countries which use similiarly ambiguous terms in their country name, however. The "Union of Soviet Socialists Republic" There are plenty of socialist republics. What is to stop us from calling Canada the "Union of American Socialists Republic"? There's also the "Central African Republic", "Democratic Republic of the Congo", "Federated States of Micronesia", "United Arab Emirates", "United Kingdom",...
    – stevendesu
    Commented Nov 16, 2010 at 18:14
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    there's nothing to stop you calling Canada (or indeed any other country) anything you like. However, Canada's official name is simply "Canada", so referring to it in some other way may cause confusion. :-) Commented Nov 16, 2010 at 18:46

Wikipedia has a good section on how U.S. citizens came to be known as Americans.

It's interesting to note that in other languages, U.S. citizens are not so easily confused with other inhabitants of North and South America. For example, some Spanish-speaking people use the term norteamericanos.

  • 2
    Mexico and Canada are also part of North America. Spanish speakers are some of the most sensitive to this issue, but they also have no truly unique way of identifying people from the USA. Estadounidenses could also refer to Mexicans.
    – Eric
    Commented Dec 2, 2010 at 10:27
  • 1
    Sorry that will never happen. Mexicans are the term for idem. When in common terms you say northamerican, you refer to USA citizens. When you use it geologically the term includes Canada, Mexico and USA.
    – Billeeb
    Commented Dec 2, 2010 at 18:59
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    @Billeeb: Even if "norteamericano" is understood by you to mean only a person from the USA, it still has exactly the same problem as "American". It is a term that can refer to a wider group of people even if the common usage is to use it to refer only to a limited group of people.
    – Eric
    Commented Dec 3, 2010 at 13:12
  • That is surely in any other place than america, is not what I understand, is what it has been developed to call someone who call himself american and lives in a portion of the whole continent, so the rest of us who are we? You think is my opinion that northamerican is just USa citizen. Well you should get a trip to anywhere in let's say from México to Antártica and you'll understand my point. Is like when you say European and commonly you're never including the turks.
    – Billeeb
    Commented Dec 3, 2010 at 14:34
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    By the way, I don't like to say Northamerican. It is the same as saying American, is like Canada has never been there. That's why American sound worse than that yet. The rest of America is not included is an excluding term so could be seen as rude. Is like saying "Europe and Germany", like Germany was not part of Europe. But, again in the rest of America, Northamerica=USA. Not something that I support. I'm just clarifying things.
    – Billeeb
    Commented Dec 3, 2010 at 14:38

The main British colonies in the new world/Americas were the thirteen colonies (Wikipedia). It was thus perhaps natural that the British (and English-speakers in general) came to refer to these thirteen colonies simply as "America". These colonies later became the USA.

In contrast the Spanish were all over the Americas (Wikipedia). It was thus perhaps natural that the Spanish (and Spanish-speakers in general) came to refer to the new world/Americas as a whole as "America".

The analogy is perhaps to the use of the word "Asian" in the UK as compared to in the USA. In the UK, where most immigrants from the continent of Asia were/are from South Asia, when you say "Asian", you mean South Asian. In contrast, in the US, where most immigrants from Asia were/are from East Asia, when you say "Asian", you mean East Asian.

And just like how Spanish-speakers/Latin America (often) get annoyed when people refer to the USA simply as "America", in the US people are (sometimes) annoyed when you refer to a South Asian as an Asian. And mutatis mutandis for the UK.


Before the United States Civil War (1861–1865), we referred to our Republic as "these United States of America" and people called themselves citizens of the state they lived in. After it was demonstrated that the individual states had been assimilated, the reference changed to "the United States of America".

  • 4
    Funny how the "War of Northern Aggression" began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter by the Southerners...
    – Dima
    Commented Dec 3, 2010 at 23:33
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    It was not much of a "bombardment". It was more like a "get out of my house" - with artillery for emphasis. :)
    – jcarmody
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 19:55
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    While it's great poetic metaphor, linguists have failed to corroborate the claim that the change in usage was due to the conflict of 1861-1865. See Language Log posts here, here, and here for details. Commented Jun 27, 2011 at 20:06

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