The Word Americano: Linguistic Imperialism or a Simple Misunderstanding?

December 14, 2010

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(Photo courtesy of JColman)

Lately, my nationality has been provoking some interesting conversations.

When meeting a Brazilian for the first time the conversation usually goes something like this:

“I’m Trevor.” [O meu nome é Trevor]

A friendly reply and warm Brazilian welcome follow, accompanied by a manly handshake or cheek kiss depending on the Brazilian’s gender.

Then, the question: “Where are from?” [De onde você é?]

Here I hesitate, because I know what’s coming, but always reply the same.

“I’m American.” [Eu sou americano.]

The kicker: “I too am American.” [Eu também sou americano.]

I’ve had the same conversation so many times that I’ve begun to wonder:

Is the use of Americano a subtle form of American imperialism (an actual comment from a Brazilian), or a simply grammar gone bad?

South America and North America are indeed two different halves of the same continent, but there is much more to this issue than basic geography.

In some Brazilian circles, bitterness lingers over U.S. interventions that supported several dictators throughout Brazil’s history. Today United States’ cultural, political, and even linguistic influences are sometimes muddled by this past.

From my perspective, the term americano is more a grammatical problem than a political one.

The word ‘American’ in Brazilian Portuguese translates to americano. Though estadunidense (citizen of the United States) exists, it is rarely used by Brazilians in casual situations.

In an attempt to speak more like a Brazilian I use the more common americano when introducing myself.

When good-natured debates arise, I defend this grammatical decision with the following arguments:

1. Estadunidense doesn’t exist in English: The closest equivalent is ‘citizen of the United States.’ Portuguese learners exclusively use ‘americano‘ because they’re translating ‘American’ literally from English into Portuguese.

Since I know better, this is not my main argument, but it explains the way in which Americans seem to speak americano as if they owned it.

2. Official name: The country’s official name is The United States of America. No other country in the western hemisphere—or in the world for that matter—can claim this distinction. It’s uniquely, well, American.

3. North American is incorrect: I disagree with Brazilians that claim I’m a North American [norteamericano]. Canada and Mexico are also part of North America.

Likewise, Brazilians don’t say they’re South Americans [sudamericanos] when asked their nationality.

4. Brazilians don’t use ‘estadunidense’: I’d gladly use this less ambiguous term if other Brazilians did the same (much as I always say the more accepted ‘estadounidense‘ in Spanish).

However, until the term becomes common usage, I’m sticking to the controversial americano while making it clear to my opposition that I’m brasileiro at heart.

TIP: If you’re an American in Brazil that would rather avoid this politically-charged conversation, simply respond, “I’m from the United States” [Eu sou dos Estados Unidos].

DEBATE: What do you think about how Brazilians use the word ‘americano’? Do you agree or disagree with this post?

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