The Etymology of “Latin” America

May 6, 2016

Have you ever wondered why Central America, the Caribbean, and South America are commonly referred to as “Latin” America? No one in these regions speaks Latin today. The primary language is Castilian Spanish but there is also wide use of Portuguese, French, English, Dutch, and indigenous languages such as Quechua, Aymara, Guaraní, and hundreds of others.

The etymology of the term “Latin” America, like the language Latin, perhaps was more relevant in the past but has been adopted and is now widely used. This term is from the 19th century and the years of civil war in Mexico between the liberals and conservatives. Benito Juárez, who would serve five terms as Mexico’s president led the liberal party. Mexico was in serious debt and so European powers occupied the city of Veracruz. Juárez’s rival party of conservatives asked France to stay in Mexico and establish a monarchy. France was trying to secure a hold in the no-longer-new New World so Napoleon III of France installed Maximillian from the House of Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico’s second empire. They did so as part of the War of French Intervention. Eventually the United States stepped in claiming that the French were undermining the Monroe Doctrine which states that if other European powers tried to interfere in the western hemisphere, the United States would intervene.

During France’s occupation, it is said that the French and Mexicans who were coexisting realized that their languages were not so different, they are both romance languages or of Latin origin, and they realized that they were able to understand each other with ease. France was trying to say that they were allies with Mexico because they had the same roots and came from the same origins. They were also subtly saying that, via their language, they were closer to Mexico than Mexico is to Britain or the United States which both speak a Germanic language. The terminology gained traction and was used in politics and literature. It gave distinction between two Americas: the North and the South, Latin America and Anglo-America.

Essentially, because the Spanish language descended from Latin and the French were political opportunists, we now use a broad term to refer to nearly an entire hemisphere, its people, culture, and languages.



Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

Fuentes, Carlos. El Espejo Enterrado.Mexico: Taurus, 2009. Print.

McGuiness, Aims. "Searching for 'Latin America': Race and Sovereignty in the Americas in the 1850s." Race and Nation in Modern Latin America. N.p.: Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2003. 87-107. Print.

About Author(s)

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Page McDonough
Page McDonough is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She studies Spanish, Anthropology, Portuguese, American Sign Language, and Linguistics. She often says she likes to study language, culture, and people. Page loves to travel. In her short time at Pitt she will have studied abroad three times: to Cochabamba, Bolivia with CLAS, a semester living in and loving Valencia, Spain, and to Fortaleza, Brazil with CLAS. She loves to dance, sing, and binge Netflix in her free time.