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August 19, 2009

I am one. Whether I chose this fate or not,  I was born of American parents in a hospital in the US. That makes me an American. Rather than engage in deep analysis of our place on the planet, I want to take on one small linguistic tic that lives on in Germany. It involves understanding exactly what the term American means.

It has only sunk in recently, after many years of hearing it, that in Germany one is frequently corrected for using the adjective amerikanisch or the noun Amerikaner(in) without qualifying it as do many educated Germans, i.e.- US-amerikanisch and US-Amerikaner(in). This occurs both when speaking and when writing, and the correction is typically dispensed with a resigned “you Americans are so ignorant of the world around you” attitude, blithely ignoring the fact that Americans in Germany (or abroad in general) are likely, de facto, not those Americans. This can be annoying, not least since it is irksome to have Germans pronounce in this fashion on the culture and ways of a hemisphere and of a people about which many know not much more than what the media shows them. We all know how accurate media stereotypes are, don’t we (“I know nussing … NUSSING” – ah, Sergeant Schultz, how you shaped my early view of Germany).

Rather than rely on my own sense of the issue, I decided to do a little investigating. Using newspapers from various South and Central American nations, as well as Canadian sources, I checked to see what their editorial standard was for using either the substantive or adjectival form of the term. Here are the results:

  • O Estado de Sao Paulo, Brazil: … nenhum americano no Paquistão estaria seguro. (no American would be safe in Pakistan)
  • La Nacion, Buenos Aires: El presidente estadounidense se refirió al levantamiento ocasional … (The president referred to the occasional lifting …) [how cool, Spanish can make an adjective out of estados uni] and … a principios de mes por el Departamento de Estado norteamericano … (… earlier this month by the U.S. State Department …) [guess Canada has been booted from North America]
  • Globe and Mail, Canada: … keep the lid on violence in advance of an American withdrawal …
  • Gazette, Montreal: … but older Americans will recall how closely these tactics copy …
  • Journal de Montréal: … à une assemblée sur le système de santé américain au New Hampshire … (… at a meeting on the U.S. health care system in New Hampshire …)
  • The Gleaner, Kingston, Jamaica: … but said the addition of American pop stars has done wonders for the show …

Curious about other European nations,  I poked around there a bit, too:

  • Svenska Dagbladet, Stockholm: … den senaste tiden stått i centrum för meningsbrytningar mellan den amerikanska och den israeliska regeringen … (… recently been in the [differences of opinion?] between the U.S. and the Israeli Government …
  • České Noviny, Prague: Americká ekonomika ve druhém čtvrtletí … (U.S. economy in the second quarter …)
  • Le Monde, Paris: Téhéran confirme détenir trois Américains (Teheran confirms detaining three Americans) and Le renforcement prévu de la présence américaine en Colombie … (The reinforcement of the U.S. presence in Colombia …)

Other than that cool ability of Spanish to make an adjective out of an otherwise unwieldy country name, it would appear that there is something of a consensus in this small and unscientific sample that the term American, when unqualified, refers to the United States and its people. This seems neither bad nor confusing to me, and certainly not worthy of a correction. After all, the other nations on the western side of the globe have their own names, and seem OK with that: Brazilians, Cubans, Canadians, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, etc. American is simply a convenient shorthand for United States of America. I cannot think of any other nation in the western hemisphere that has the word American in its name, so the qualification is superfluous, not least since languages tend toward economy (i.e.- dispense with superfluous elements).

Even what is arguably the leading German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, seems at peace with Amerikaner and amerikanisch. In an article today, I read:

  • Die Debatte über einen Umbau des amerikanischen Gesundheitswesens hat mit der parlamentarischen Sommerpause …

Given this, I feel somewhat justified rolling my eyes when told to use “US-amerikanisch.” Lesson not needed, nor wanted. Besides, Wikipedia says it is so.

That last bit is US-American sarcasm, by the way.

UPDATE: Found this very pointed and humorous take on why no one should use “US-Amerikaner” or its derivatives.

  1. Thomas Gerd tom Markotten permalink
    October 27, 2009 23:18

    Hello Dale,

    thank you for your report. As I am a german I am not surprised that you are sometimes “corrected” concerning the word american-> us-american … .

    Also I can follow that many germans like to act like as quoted:
    “…and the correction is typically dispensed with a resigned “you Americans are so ignorant of the world around you” attitude…”

    But in the end I am a bit divided:
    On the one hand I can understand your point of view, I also would not like to be corrected and I think that it is quite clear that you come from the USA, if you introduce yourself as american,
    on the other hand I have been living in latin america (costa rica) for one year and I remember quite clear that most times the costa rican people didn’t like very much if someone from the USA introduced himself as american. They would say: “He comes from the states.” So I also can understand that point of view.

    Maybe, if you want to, you could check what happens if you introduce yourself as someone from the states. I think that would give german “wisenheimer”‘s no chance.

    If I am honest, I think I also would have been one german wisenheimer…. so I will think about it in the future if someone introduces himself as american and just smile ;o).

    Best regards

  2. Dale permalink*
    October 28, 2009 09:12

    Thanks for the comment, Tom. I think the context plays a significant role here, as you point out. If in Costa Rica people prefer the appellation “States,” then that would be the way to go I would think to avoid any sort of cultural chauvinism. I’ll tuck that away for future use.

    As to your suggestion, in the past I have frequently answered the question “woher kommst du” with “aus den Staaten,” and have generally gotten puzzled looks in return. It seems that in this hemisphere, or at least in Germany, that term is too generic for people to place. Even saying “aus den Vereinigten Staaten” tends to fail, since six syllables is a longer answer than one expects to such a question and that seems to cause some short in the processing circuit. When I get those puzzled looks, I usually just add “ich bin Amerikaner” and that solves the problem (except for those who then correct me!).

    There are no universally valid answers, I suppose, which is what I think you were getting at in your comment. In the end, local context and the context of the conversation seem to determine how best to proceed.

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