Have you heard of Martin Waldseemüller? Or Matthias Ringmann? Let me enlighten you – they were cartographers (map makers) in 16th-century Germany. Now I’ll tell you what they’re doing in a column on vocabulary, and how they have much to answer for in a simmering controversy.
A map they drew together featured a name for the first time – America. The word is derived from Americus, the Latin form of a pioneering Italian explorer’s first name – Amerigo Vespucci, who participated as an observer in several voyages that explored the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502, and demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’s voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to Afro-Eurasians. In other words, the original ‘America’ was South America, or the entire New World continent at best.
Therefore why only the country formally called the United States of America is simply called America, or why only its citizens are called Americans remains a mystery. Are Mexicans and Canadians touchy on this subject, as possibly Brazilians or Peruvians are? Possibly so – but then, what do they call themselves? Mexican-Americans? CanadianAmericans? That would place them squarely in the league of AfricanAmericans or Indian-Americans, who are still US citizens first, that prefix being a mere nod to their ethnicity.
Yet, irksome though it may be that other nationalities of the continent are not defined by it in nomenclature, the last thing they (Canadians, for instance) want to be called is American. Down South it doesn’t matter to citizens of Brasil (thus spelt) and Mexico, that they too are “the United States of …”. Meanwhile back in the USA the media would have you believe that the world itself is encompassed by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with the use of expressions like basketball’s World Championships, baseball’s World Series, and so on.
But if it annoys you that America is a universally acceptable alternative to USA, and remains celebrated in song and poetry, remember: They got there first. And when you’re the richest and most powerful nation on earth, you have your pick.