As soon as I said the word I knew I had made a mistake. I watched uneasily as formerly friendly faces morphed into more hardened countenances. As I frenetically struggled to explain myself, I silently cursed myself for being so careless. Because really, I knew better. Everyone who has ever taken a Spanish class knows better. It is such a convenient little cognate, though, so much more fitting and easier to say than the alternative, just a little –o at the end…
But alas, caution came seconds too late. “Soy (I am an) Americano” it was.
Now obviously, that is not a crude word, or even an inappropriate one, and is almost certainly the best ethnonym for a person from the United States. And yet, to most Latin Americans, to use it to describe only citizens of the United States is an insult. But if not Americano, what could I call myself?
Argentines have a few names for people from the affectionately named “country to the north,” but none of them quite fit. Many have tried calling me “yanqui”, but I very quickly and clearly explained that I was by no means a Yankee and did not want to be confused with one. “Norteamericano” works in principle, but who wants to be lumped in with Canadians? Gringo is technically an option, but I feel uneasy about referring to myself using a racial slur, so that one is out.
So what am I to do? Why is it that I have to resort to the unwieldy and decidedly ridiculous equivalent of United States-er — “estadounidense” — to describe myself without getting a glare, when everyone else in the world, in every other language, refers to us quite simply as Americans? Is it my fault that the U.S. was the only country in the Americas that could not come up with a unique name other than that of the continent? Can I be punished in this way for the continent-sized ambitions of the Founding Fathers?