The Americas commonly refers to the landmass in the Western Hemisphere consisting of the continents of North America and South America with their associated islands.
The term is a relatively recent and less ambiguous alternative to the term America, which may refer to either the entire landmass or the United States of America. The former, and original, usage is now often considered archaic in English-speaking nations but still in use in other areas, in which the Americas is often described as a single continent or supercontinent, and therefore called America (singular). When used to describe a single landmass, an analogous term to America or (the) Americas is Eurasia, which consists of Europe and Asia collectively.
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 Waldseemčller in Saint-DiÄ-des-Vosges. 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.
However, as Dr. Basil Cottle (Author, Dictionary of Surnames, 1967) points out, new countries or continents are never named after a person's first name, always after their second name. Thus, America should really have become Vespucci Land or Vespuccia if the Italian explorer really gave his name to the newly discovered continent.
Christopher Columbus, who had first brought the continents' existence to the attention of Renaissance era voyagers, had died in 1506 (believing, to the end, that he'd discovered and conquered part of India) and could not protest Waldseemčller's decision.
A few alternative theories regarding the continents' naming have been proposed, but none of them have any widespread acceptance or any for that matter. 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.
Supposedly, Bristol fishermen had been visiting the coast of North America for at least a century before Columbus' voyage and Waldseemčller's maps are alleged to incorporate information from the early English journeys to North America.
The theory holds that a variant of Amerike's name appeared on an early English map (of which however no copies survive) and that this was the true inspiration for Waldseemčller.
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 Amerigo to reflect the importance of the discovery.
Vespucci's role in the naming issue, like his exploratory activity, is unclear and most probably a tale. 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.
Whether usage of America or the Americas is preferred, many people living in the Americas refer to themselves as American. However, most of the English-speaking world (including Canada), use the word to refer solely to a citizen of the United States of America. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that the phrase "United States" does not easily translate into an adjective or descriptive noun in English. While Spanish-speaking Latin America uses the word estadounidence (literally, "of the united states"), calling someone a "United Stater" or other such name sounds very awkward in English. This has led to the use of the word "American". Nevertheless, calling a U.S. citizen simply americano or americana in Spanish is considered offensive to some citizens of Latin America, while other Latinos do not consider themselves American but identify themselves with their own particular country while identifying Americans with the U.S.
The American population is made up of the descendents of three large ethnic groups and their combinations: the native inhabitants of the Americas, being "Indians" (or "Native Americans" or "Amerindians"), Eskimos, and Aleuts; Europeans (of mainly Spanish, British, Irish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German and Dutch, origin); and black Africans. There are also more recent immigrants, such as from the Balkan, Central Europe and Central and Eastern Asia.The majority of the American people live in Latin America. Most of Latin America is Spanish-speaking, with Portuguese-speaking Brazil as the major exception. Canada and the United States are linguistically, culturally and economically quite different from Latin America, with the whites being more predominantly of North European ancestry. As part of the more prosperous northern world, the United States especially has long overshadowed and attempted to manipulate southern Latin America, most notably during the Cold War.
Various languages, both European and native, are spoken in America. The most common are Spanish, English, Portugese, and French. Most of the non-native languages have, to different degrees, evolved differently from the mother country, but are usually still mutually intelligible. Some have combined though, which has even resulted in completely new languages, such as Papiamentu, which is a combination of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch (representing the respective colonisers), native Arawak, various African languages and, more recently, English. Because of immigration, there are many communities where other languages are spoken from all parts of the world, especially in the United States and Canada, two important destinations for immigrants.
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