The Name "America" and Its Many Meanings

America. It's a landmass that comprises most of the land in the Western Hemisphere. But what do we mean we use that word, and how do people in other parts of the world use the term?

In this article, we'll take a brief look at the history of the word "America" and examine how it's used around the world.

The name America was first recorded in 1507, taken from the first name of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci's. In some cases, it was used in reference to South America alone, but when Gerardus Mercator used the term in 1538, it referred to both North and South America.

Mercator is the man who created the map projection we all use today, so this early application of the term is noteworthy. Nevertheless. in modern English, North and South America are considered separate continents. Both continents together are often referred to as the Americas.

When an English speaker says "America," in the singular form, they're referring to the United States of America. That usage of the term is fairly new. As recently as the 1950s, the name America usually referred to a single continent that included both North and South America. Leading up to WWII, it served US geopolitical interests to represent America as a unified Western Hemisphere landmass that was entirely under US control. Then, during the early 1950s, almost all American geographers made a definitive case that, being visually distinct landmasses, North and South America should have separate designations.

When you start to look at how the term America is used in the non-English speaking world, things get complicated. Part of the problem is the word's inclusion in the name, "The United States of America." It's hard not to refer to the country as "America," or the "United States," both of which are ambiguous. A detailed examination of this topic can be found in this interesting video.

In general, outside the US, it gets hard to nail down the meaning of the word "America." The two groups of people who have the strongest argument for not using "America" to refer to the US are the South Americans and the Canadians. In the Spanish-speaking world, América does not mean the US, it means both the North American and South American continents combined. If you're a Canadian, you're in the North American continent, one of the Americas, so it's reasonable that you might object to the term America being used to mean the US.

Regardless of where we live, we don't often consider what the word America means to others. It's common to get locked into a worldview that puts your home country as the center of the universe. A general interest in geography helps widen our view and become more sensitive to the outlook of other people around the globe.