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The Daily Tar Heel

I'll be a United States-er abroad

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?

That ambition, though, is of course the main source of the controversy. From the first throes of independence our southern neighbors have cast an uneasy eye on their ‘Big Brother’ (our words) carrying the ‘Big Stick’ (our words). Combine that rhetoric with a proven history of the bellicose pursuit of Manifest Destiny and it really is no surprise that people get a little bit sensitive when you appropriate the name of the continent for the name of your country of origin.

Is there a bit of an inferiority complex at play? You betcha. When you look back on two centuries of violent governments and generally disappointing economies and then look north to see nearly the opposite, rubbing the semantic salt on the wound is bound to be frowned upon.

So despite my patriotic phonological proclivities, I asked myself the question: Am I really going to fight for my right to call myself an American? The correct answer was clearly “No,” and so for the sake of international friendship I have abandoned my hegemonic linguistic claims and turned the lexical cheek. I mean, with all the other economic and political cards in my hand, it is the least I can do.

“Disculpame, soy estadounidense.” That’s right, a United States-er. So while I have reluctantly lain aside my right to self-identify, darn it if I’m not still proud to be an Americano. And I am definitely talking about the country, not the continent.

Kyle Olson is a columnist from The Daily Tar Heel. He is a junior international studies major from Stafford, VA. Contact him at

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