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September 23, 2001 - How America Got Its Name, Part 1 - 2002-01-30

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble with Wordmaster. Some time ago, a listener wrote to ask if there is a difference between "America" and "United States." We think this is a good time to answer that question.

RS: Recently we read about an effort by the U.S. Library of Congress to acquire what is known as "America's birth certificate." It's a 1507 European map -- the first map on which the name "America" appears.

AA: So we set up an interview with John Hebert [AY-bear], chief of the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress. We scheduled it for Tuesday, September eleventh.

RS: And then...


"Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings but they cannot touch the foundation of America."

"(crowd chanting) U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A!"

RS: President Bush, speaking from the White House, and later, when he later visited rescuers at the World Trade Center in New York, being greeted with "U-S-A! U-S-A!" a patriotic chant normally reserved for international sporting events.

AA: You heard President Bush call the United States, "America." John Hebert sees little difference between "America" and "United States." In fact, he checked some atlases going back to the founding of the republic in 1776. What he found is that people here have been using "America" all along as another name for the United States of America.

RS: Yet on that 1507 map the name "America" actually appeared over what we now call South America. North America, in other words, wasn't even on the map yet.

AA: So I asked John Hebert why politicians tend to use the term "America" rather than "United States."


HEBERT: "Well, I guess it's a shorthand. I think the United States is a very cumbersome word when you're describing 'I'm a citizen of the United States,' as opposed to 'I'm an American.' I will tell you one thing, 'America' does denote an area separated from Europe, separated from Asia, and that is a way of classifying us an entity that feels that protection -- at one time felt protection -- of the ocean separating us from the Old World. So I think it's become part of our language, not only political language but just in everyday language, to refer to us as Americans."

AA: "I mean, Mexicans are Americans, Canadians are Americans."

HEBERT: "There's no doubt about what you're saying. And they definitely are Americans and they think of themselves as Americans. When they define who they are, when they name who they are, in most cases, it's 'Mexicans' or 'Canadians.'

RS: John Hebert, a Latin America historian by training, also noted that not everyone looks at the map the same way.


"In the study of geography in Latin American texts, you will see that the Western Hemisphere is referred to as 'America.' There is no division of continents between a North America and a South America, but there is only one continent of America which is divided into a southern, central and northern branch of the same continent -- not continents -- of America."

AA: "And then in English?"

HEBERT: "In English geograhies you will invariably see the division into two continents, between a North American and a South America as two separate continents. That's not to say we should not call ourselves Americans, though. That's not the point. The point is that we should be aware of the way in which other peoples look at this same part of the real estate that we all occupy."

AA: "I suppose economic power kind of seems to have dictated usage perhaps."

HEBERT: "Or political. Political and economic. Let's not forget that the United States very early on is the independent nation. It establishes itself as a beacon for other republican efforts, and hence came along the Haitian revolution and the breaks from Spain in 1821 with Mexico and the whole 'new Spain' folding, and progressively throughout the Americas from that point on. So there is a certain amount of vintage to the United States as the first American republic and probably leads very strongly to the use of our terms in a very strong sense of the idea of independence and democracy, a democratic system."

AA: John Hebert at the Library of Congress. Next week, more about how America got its name.

RS: Let us hear from you. Our e-mail address is or send letters to VOA Wordmaster, Washington, D-C, 20237 USA. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "America"/Simon & Garfunkel