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Tuesday, June 04, 2013


My thanks to Dan and PrawfsBlawg for having me back!  I'll be blogging lightly for the next few days - I'm at the Harvard Institute for Global Law & Policy's 5th Conference.  It's an enormously impressive grouping of scholars from around the world, including quite a few Law & Society stragglers who truly must be conferenced-out.   


In preparing to come here, I re-read Duncan Kennedy's The Three Globalizations of Law & Legal Thought.  Within this fascinating piece, a term jumped out at me this time: “Unitedstatesean.”  I found it fascinating because I have struggled with the comfortable term “American,” which we all use so frequently without a second thought. 


"American" fails on many fronts.  When we use "American" to mean "of the United States," it’s not an effective metonym because the American world just cannot be summed up by the United States.  It is imprecise: which "American" is meant?  In the United States we may safely assume we mean others from the United States, but in a diverse context it has so many potential meanings - Colombian? Salvadorean? Brazilian?   Comparativists and some internationalists may find “American” devoid of clear meaning.   Latin Americans may find it an offensive erasure.  


“Unitedstatesean” seems to work, and do the right kind of work, both as a noun and an adjective.  As I always tell my Contracts students, specific is terrific, although for Mexicans, who live in the “United States of Mexico” it may not be clear enough.  The novelty of the term (even if coined decades ago) may strike some as awkward, unnecessary, or even as unpatriotic.   Even so, it holds great appeal for me as a way to resolve this little, but meaningful bit of language.   Your thoughts?  Other options or defenses for “American”?

Posted by Darren Rosenblum on June 4, 2013 at 05:04 PM | Permalink


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Definitely that is so generic and wrong on so many political levels, it should be changed already somehow...
In Spanish we say «estadounidense».

Posted by: Sergi | May 29, 2016 6:06:42 AM

"America" is hardly the only place name that could refer to two or more places; people have been managing to distinguish between Washington State and Washington, D.C. for a century and a half now. To say nothing of the hundreds of duplicatively named cities. "American" is fine; it just needs to be used with recognition that occasionally more context may be needed, and, when so, that context should be provided without whining about "the real America" or what not.

Posted by: KM | Jun 6, 2013 9:40:35 AM

At the risk of sounding pedantic, Mexicans are not from the United States of Mexico, but the United Mexican States.

Posted by: Leland Unruh | Jun 5, 2013 7:06:56 PM

Sure "American" is historically contingent and communicates status and exclusion. It is hard to see how any definition of a citizenry or people could avoid that, and there are plenty worldwide that are underinclusive or overinclusive; in this particular case it seems particularly grasping of the USA to have seized a continent's term (unless one felt that everyone on the continent should shun the term as a European imposition, in which case good riddance). I was reacting to the claim that "Unitedstatesean" had "great appeal" and "works" as a solution to this problem. Like many prescriptive solutions to problematic language, it's a non-starter.

To me, the more interesting question is whether non-English speaking peoples should accept that usage in their own language . . . my sense is that resistance in Central and South America has waned somewhat, but I could be wrong. Personally, I accept that other nations and peoples are free to reject a particular nation's choice of term for itself, but that is not without controversy.

Posted by: Ed | Jun 5, 2013 2:28:46 PM

I don't know whether their use predates Duncan Kennedy or any other Unitedstatesean who may make a claim on coining the term, but Italians have described me interchangeably as "americano" and "statunitense" (plural: "statunitensi").

See also, e.g.: http://www.nonsisamai.com/2009/01/americano-o-statunitense.html (Italian website).

Posted by: Michael | Jun 5, 2013 12:06:17 PM

It is true that residents of Latin America refer to themselves by specific country of origin ("Ecuadorian", "Uruguayan" etc.). Yet, Darren Rosenblum is correct in his assessment that Latin American discussions about the entire region are nuanced in distinguishing South America and North America in order to refrain from over-claiming "America." While Duncan Kennedy's "Unitedstatesean" is a mouthful that is unlikely to catch on after all these years, I do appreciated Darren's reminder of the importance of being reflective about how our default settings in language can implicitly communicate unintended messages of status and exclusion.

Posted by: Tanya Hernandez | Jun 5, 2013 11:38:22 AM

"Unitedstatesean" is an abomination, to the point that I think you may be joking. Absent actual and substantial offense caused others in the Americas -- which has been caused in so many other more tangible ways -- there's no basis for changing it. If you want to feel better about it, think of it as an uncharacteristic recognition that U.S. citizens are part of a broader population, in the same way that a German might refer to herself as "European."

Posted by: Ed | Jun 5, 2013 10:38:59 AM

The argument from confusion is unavailing. No Canadian or Brazillian has ever identified himself as American and then waited to be asked from which country.

Posted by: Brad | Jun 5, 2013 12:44:17 AM

My though is that we're stuck with "American." First, because it's what all other denizens of the Americas call us, except for Canadians, who might call us "Yanks." Second, because all other denizens are so proud of their countries that they don't want to be lumped under "American" or even "South American." They want to be called "Brazilians" or "Chileans" or "Cubans" or "Jamaicans" and don't mind our claiming the term "American."

I can't imagine a Canadian or a Mexican referring to himself as a "proud North American" or an Argentine as a "proud South American." Indeed, they, like the various nationalities of Asia or Africa, don't much care to be consider one with their neighbors in the American mind. Indeed, I've not heard a Brazilian or Argentine refer to himself as "Latino" or "Hispanic."

Posted by: jimbino | Jun 4, 2013 7:46:03 PM

Germans use the term "US-Amerikanisch." The English equivalent would be "US-American."

Posted by: Michael Steven Green | Jun 4, 2013 6:53:34 PM

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