One term with which the readers of French newspapers such as Le Monde diplomatique and Courrier international are familiar is états-unien or “United-Statesian.” For some left-leaning minds in France, referring to people from the U.S.A. as “Americans” is unbearable. Surely it symbolizes a nation’s hegemonic objectives and desire to embody an entire continent? It is almost as if we said “Europeans,” meaning the inhabitants of Europe, to describe the French (or the Germans, or the Italians). As if the terms Chinese and Asian were synonymous.
To contextualize this debate, we need to look back to 1776, when 13 British colonies came together to form the United States of America. The citizens of the new country quickly shortened this moniker, referring either to “the United States,” or “America.” Hence the demonym “American.” A single nation’s appropriation of a name that should belong to the inhabitants of some 40 countries and territories is naturally a source of confusion. We sometimes have to use the adjective panaméricain, “Pan-American,” when referring to the entire continent.
This explains the emergence of the French term états-unien. As is often the case with neologisms, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when it first appeared. It featured in French writings from the early 20th century, but it was in Canada – understandably – that it really took off, during the 1930s. From 1934 to 1945, it was regularly used in Quebec-based magazine L’Action nationale. After falling out of fashion in the post-war period, despite rampant anti-Americanism at the heart of far-left French ideologies, the term états-unien has made a comeback since 2000, with U.S. military interventions in the Middle East spurring renewed hostile attitudes towards the United States. In Quebec, the daily newspaper and ardent champion of Francophonie, Le Devoir, uses it liberally. This is hardly surprising given that the word Amérique, “America,” is never used in la Belle Province to describe the United States. Some people even use the shorthand les Etats, “the States”!
At the end of the day, états-unien is hardly pejorative or unkind, unlike other traditional nicknames such as Yankee and Gringo, or Ricain and Amerloque, once popular among French critics of the Land of the Free. It should be noted that South Americans are particularly sensitive about this topic, occasionally using the demonyms estadounidense and norteamericano to refer to inhabitants of the United States. However, the latter term again fails to resolve the semantic ambiguity, as Canadians and Mexicans are also North Americans.
Here’s a bonus question: How should we spell the alternative French demonym? Etats-Unien, étatsunien, or étasunien? Some have even suggested étazunien. Looking to dictionaries, the term first appeared in the 1961 edition of the Grand Larousse encyclopédique, written étatsunien. Today, it features in almost all mainstream dictionaries. In the 2022 edition of the Petit Robert, readers have the choice: Etats-unien, -ienne or étatsunien, -ienne. Whatever spelling is used, the word does not suit everybody. Like all neologisms, it is jarring to more conservative ears. Some dislike it for its anti-American connotations, while others simply find it pretentious.
On their fascinating blog, Langue Sauce Piquante, Martine Rousseau and Olivier Houdart, two copy editors at Le Monde, a daily newspaper still defined by its excellent French, share their take on the debate: “Américain has historical legitimacy, while its challenger, états-unien, is quite pertinent and makes up for part of the lexical shortfall.” This diplomatic perspective seems to be the most sensible so far!