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The Americas
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The Americas

The Americas (sometimes referred to as America) is 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 the New World.

Most references consider that there are two continents, North America and South America. However the use of America to refer to the New World as a whole is also used in English, such as in the common phrase “Christopher Columbus discovered America”. Some consider that America be considered as one continent.

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, and, indeed, nearly exclusively in English, 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, and the French language which sometimes accepts états-unien (états-unienne for women). In Portuguese, people born in United States of America are termed norteamericano or estadounidense.

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 that of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, by first Latinizing it to ‘Americus Vespucius’ and then forming the feminine ‘America’. Amerigo is a form of the German name Haimirich, meaning ‘ruler of the Home’, from 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 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, England who is believed to have financed John Cabot’s voyage of discovery to Newfoundland in 1497. 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. (See under Richard Amerike).

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.

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 – only serving to prolong the ongoing debate on whether the ‘Indies’ were really a new land, or just an extension of Asia.

See also Latin America, Germanic America, Alternative words for American.

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