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The Americas (sometimes referred to simply as America) consist of the area including the land mass located between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, generally divided into North America and South America. The term also usually includes the Caribbean, the islands in and around the Caribbean Sea, and Greenland, though not Iceland, for cultural and historical reasons. The isthmus of Central America is usually considered geographically part of North America. The Americas are often also described collectively as the Western Hemisphere or, during the colonial era, as the New World.
Most references in English assume that there are two continents, North America and South America. In American Spanish, however, the assumption is that there is a single continent, America. Moreover, the use of America to refer to the New World as a whole is also found, though less often, in English, such as in the common phrase "Christopher Columbus discovered America".
The single-continent concept also appears thematically; for example, the five rings of the Olympic flag represent the habitable continents; only one of the five represents all of the Americas.
People who live in the Americas are sometimes referred to as being American, although the word American is used much more commonly in English, and some other languages, to refer to a citizen of the United States of America. The Spanish language uses norteamericano ("North American") or estadounidense (literally "United Statesian") when referring to U.S. citizens. In French, états-unien (états-unienne for women) has been coined, but américain(ne) is more commonly used. In German, the term Amerikaner is commonly used to refer the citizens of the United States, and it is seldom necessary to use the more specific US-Amerikaner. In Italy the term Americano is used to refer to things or people pertaining to the USA but the word Statunitense is also used.
In Portugal and Brazil, U.S. residents are mostly called americanos (common usage) or norte-americano (formal usage), while estadunidense is less commonly used — presumably as a statement that the term American should not be reserved for the United States. On the other hand, Mexico is properly the "United Mexican States" (Estados Unidos Mexicanos), leading to more potential ambiguity. See American for further discussion.
Naming of America
The earliest known use of the name America for the continents of the Americas dates from 1507. It appears on a globe and a large map created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. An accompanying book, Cosmographiae Introductio, explains that the name was derived from the Latinized version of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci's name, Americus Vespucius, in its feminine form, America, as the other continents all have Latin feminine names. The Italian name Amerigo is a form of the Germanic name Haimirich, meaning "ruler of the home", from the German words haim "home" and rich "powerful". Christopher Columbus, who had first brought the continent's existence to the attention of Renaissance era voyagers, had died in 1506 and could not protest Waldseemüller's decision.
A few alternative theories regarding the continent's naming have been proposed, but none of them have any widespread acceptance. One alternative first proposed by a Bristol antiquary and naturalist, Alfred Hudd, was that America is derived from Richard Amerike, a merchant from Bristol, who is believed to have financed John Cabot's voyage of discovery from England to Newfoundland in 1497. Bristol fishermen had been visiting the coast of North America for at least a century before Columbus' voyage and Waldseemüller's maps appear to incorporate information from the early British journeys to North America. The theory holds that a variant of Amerike's name appeared on an early British map (of which however no copies survive) and that this was the true inspiration for Waldseemüller.
Another theory, first advanced by Jules Marcou in 1875 and later recounted by novelist Jan Carew , is that the name America derives from the district of Amerrique in Nicaragua. The gold-rich district of Amerrique was purportedly visited by both Vespucci and Columbus, for whom the name became synonymous with gold. According to Marcou, Vespucci later applied the name to the New World, and even changed the spelling of his own name from Alberigo to Amerrigo to reflect the importance of the discovery.
Yet another theory states that Vespucci named America after Amorica, the continent of ancient Greek and Roman myth. Italian Vespucci would have been familiar with the Roman myth. Early explorers often believed they were rediscovering islands and continents of myth or religion, such as the idea that South America was the Garden of Eden or 'Earthly Paradise'. After Vespucci's death, people forgot where the name America came from, so they changed his name to Amerigo to explain the naming of America.
Vespucci's role in the naming issue, like his exploratory activity, is unclear. Some sources say that he was unaware of the widespread use of his name to refer to the new landmass. Others hold that he promulgated a story that he had made a secret voyage westward and sighted land in 1491, a year before Columbus. If he did indeed make such claims, they backfired, and only served to prolong the ongoing debate on whether the "Indies" were really a new land, or just an extension of Asia.
Last updated: 10-19-2005 10:50:38