The name “America” (1507) was first applied to the lands west across the ocean from Europe and Africa by Martin Waldseemuller, a German mapmaker. He named it after Amerigo Vespucci (Americus Vespucius in Latin), who he thought discovered it.
We think of Columbus as the one who “discovered” America, but in the early 1500s Vespucci’s books outsold Columbus’s by three to one. Also, Columbus never claimed to discover a New World – but Vespucci did!
Waldseemuller caught his mistake a year later when he read about Columbus, but by then it was too late – a thousand copies of his map (pictured above) had been sold all over Europe. He dropped the name in later maps.
In 1538 Mercator became the first person to call the Americas North and South America (in Latin). But he too dropped the name in his famous world map of 1569.
There were other Western names for America in the 1500s:
- Land of the Holy Cross
- New Spain
- The island of Brazil (for South America)
- The West Indies – now used just for the Caribbean
- The New World (Terra Nova) – Vespucci’s name for it, still used
“America” did not catch on till the late 1500s. Mainly because it was more acceptable to German and Dutch mapmakers. It even sounded like a continent – Africa, Asia, America. Waldseemuller made it that way on purpose.
“America” meant both North and South America together, seen as one of the main parts of the world. Jefferson and Linnaeus had used it that way in the 1700s. That is still its main meaning in Spanish.
But in English, by 1815, “America” mainly meant the United States of America. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson called the Thirteen Colonies declaring their independence from Britain the “united States of America” (lower-case u). A year later the Continental Congress made the “United States of America” the official name of the new country, “America” for short.
When the word “Americans” entered English in 1578, it meant the native people of the Americas, misnamed “Indians” by Columbus. It was not applied to white people in North America till 1739. Before then they were called colonials or provincials. Most saw themselves as English. Independence from Britain changed all that. By the late 1700s “Americans” in English mainly meant the white people of the United States of America.
Some Latin Americans see that as a bit of Anglo American arrogance. Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay in 2009:
the grandchildren of the Pilgrims seized the name and everything else. Now they are the Americans. And those of us who live in the other Americas, who are we?
As late as 1913 Webster’s dictionary still limited “Americans” to just the “descendants of Europeans”.
Some people still think of it that way. Like Birthers. Or tweeters angered by Nina Davuluri becoming Miss America. Or those who “do not see colour”. Or the Hollywood executives who told film producer Christopher Lee there were no Americans in Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club”. Lee told them:
There are Americans in it. They just don’t look like you.
– Abagond, 2014.