Different languages use different terms for citizens of the United States, who are known in English as Americans. All forms of English refer to United States citizens as Americans, a term deriving from the Americas. In the English context, it came to refer to inhabitants of British North America and then the United States. However, there is some linguistic ambiguity over this use due to the other senses of the word American, which can also refer to people from the Americas in general. Other languages, including French, German, Japanese and Russian, use cognates of American to refer to people from the United States while others, particularly Spanish, primarily use terms derived from United States. There are various other local and colloquial names for Americans.
Amerigo Vespucci first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia's eastern outskirts as conjectured by Christopher Columbus, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to the peoples of the Old World. Martin Waldseemüller coined the term America (in honor of Vespucci) in a 1507 world map.
First uses of the adjective American referenced European settlements in the New World. Americans referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and subsequently to European settlers and their descendants. English use of the term American for people of European descent dates to the 17th century, with the earliest recorded appearance being in Thomas Gage's The English-American: A New Survey of the West Indies in 1648. In English, American came to be applied especially to people in British America and thus its use as a demonym for the United States derives by extension.
The United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 refers to "the thirteen united [sic] States of America", making the first formal use of the country name, which was officially adopted in 1777 by the nation's first governing constitution, the Articles of Confederation. The Federalist Papers of 1787-1788, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison to advocate the ratification of the United States Constitution, use the word "American" in both its original pan-American sense, but also in its United States sense: Federalist Paper 24 refers to the "American possessions" of Britain and Spain (i.e. land outside of the United States) while Federalist Papers 51 and 70 refer to the United States as "the American republic". People from the United States increasingly referred to themselves as Americans through the end of the 18th century and the 1795 Treaty of Peace and Amity with the Barbary States refers to "American Citizens" while George Washington spoke to his people of "[t]he name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity" in his 1796 farewell address. Eventually, this usage spread through other English-speaking countries and the unqualified noun American in all forms of the English language now chiefly refers to natives or citizens of the United States, though other senses are generally specified with a qualifier such as Latin American or North American.
International speakers of English generally refer to people from the United States as Americans while equivalent translations of American are used in many other languages, namely French (américain), although the term étatsunien derived from États-Unis (United States) in French is also accepted, Dutch (Amerikaan), Afrikaans (Amerikaner), Japanese (, r?maji: amerika-jin), Filipino (Amerikano), Hebrew (?), Arabic () and Russian (?, ?).
In German, the designation US-Amerikaner and its adjective form US-amerikanisch are sometimes used, though Amerikaner (adjective: amerikanisch) is more common in scientific, official, journalistic and colloquial parlance. The style manual of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a leading German-language newspaper, dismisses the term U.S.-amerikanisch as both "unnecessary" and "artificial" and recommends replacing it with amerikanisch. The respective guidelines of the foreign ministries of Austria, Germany and Switzerland all dictate Amerikaner/amerikanisch for official usage.Ami is common in colloquial speech. In Italian, both americano and statunitense are used, although the former is more common.
In European Portuguese, americano is mostly used in colloquial speech, but the term usually used in the press is norte-americano. In Brazilian Portuguese, the everyday term is usually americano or norte-americano and estadunidense is the preferred form in academia.
Chinese has distinct words for American in the continent sense and American in the United States sense. The United States is called (Pinyin: m?iguó; Jyutping: mei5 gwok3) while the continent of America is called (Pinyin: m?izh?u; Jyutping: mei5 zau1). There are separate demonyms derived from each word and a United States citizen is referred to as (Pinyin: m?iguó rén; Jyutping: mei5 gwok3 yan4).
Although some Spanish speakers use the translation of American (americano) as well, the official Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas de la Real Academia Española nonetheless recommends instead estadounidense (literally United Statesian) because American can also refer to all of the inhabitants of the continents of North and South America. In Spanish-speaking Latin America and the Caribbean, Americans may be referred to as americanos or estadounidenses and in colloquial uses gringos, but the latter word usually has a disparaging meaning depending on the context in which it is used.
The only officially and commonly used alternative for referring to the people of the United States in English is to refer to them as citizens of that country. Another alternative is US-American, also spelled US American. Several single-word English alternatives for American have been suggested over time, including Usonian (popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the nonce term United-Statesian. Writer H. L. Mencken collected a number of proposals from between 1789 and 1939, finding terms including Columbian, Columbard, Fredonian, Frede, Unisian, United Statesian, Colonican, Appalacian, Usian, Washingtonian, Usonian, Uessian, U-S-ian, Uesican and United Stater. Nevertheless, no alternative to American is common in English. Names for broader categories include terms such as Western Hemispherian, New Worlder and North Atlantican.
Yankee (or Yank) is a colloquial term for Americans in English, albeit cognates can be found in other languages. Within the United States, Yankee usually refers to people specifically from New England or the Northern United States, though it has been applied to Americans generally since the 18th century, especially by the British. The earliest recorded use in this context is in a 1784 letter by Horatio Nelson.