A Wordorigins thread asked about the origin of the phrase “Latin America,” and both a rant by a Peruvian diplomat turned up by the indefatigable aldiboronti and a geography message-board post by Yaïves Ferland (“professional researcher” at the Land Law Lab of the Center for research in Geomatics, Université Laval) that I googled up give similar explanations; I will quote the Peruvian, Dr. Pedro de Mesones:

[“Latin America”, “Latin American” and “Latin” (“Latino”) were] created by the French when Napoleon III made Maximilian Emperor of Mexico (1863-1867). The terms were a product of France’s ambitious, imperialistic desire to establish its power in the American Hemisphere, while taking advantage of the revolutionary cries for independence then echoing throughout the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. The French wished to erase the idea of “Hispanic America” and replace the term with a name which would epitomize France’s ubiquity. After considering the political implications of the times, the French decided against the name “Francoamerica” out of fear that it might boomerang. So they chose the name “Latin America” under the pretext that Spaniards, also, came from the Roman world and, therefore, were included in the Latin Concept, which had given origin to France’s culture as well. And the French dreamed of Paris as the capital of their “Latin America.”

Does anybody know if any of this is true?


  1. Hi. I arrived here via the LinguaBlogs. Kudos on the blog! It’s great.
    Concerning this post, I have never heard such reason for the coining of “Latin America”. All I have ever heard was that Latin America is called so because its language derives from Latin. This includes all the Spanish speakers, including those in the Caribbean, most of whom use interchangebly the terms Hispanic and Latino to identify themselves. However, the Brazilians consider themselves “Latinos”, and have pride in using that term. Of course, their language is Portuguese, which also derives from Latin, but I don’t see how this would connect to what that quote says, if it’s correct. Unless, the Brazilians were called Latinos by analogy with the Spanish-speakers. Another thing, somewhat of a debate that I’ve heard, is the fact the Québécois, whose language, as we know, French, also derives from Latin, but are not included in the Latino group, amongst the Mexicans, Cubans, Central and South Americans, and Brazilians.

  2. Eddie: I’d never heard it either, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Of course the theoretical basis for the term is as you say; the question is when the term was first used and under what circumstances, and if it was created by the French in their attempt to establish an American empire, I think that’s extremely interesting. It should be easy enough to establish; I just don’t happen to have the appropriate references to hand. (Must… buy… more… books…)
    I like the looks of your blog, by the way!

  3. I cannot give you a definitive answer to this question, but here’s some tentative evidence from the OED2 online. Certainly, this source has the disadvantage of being an English language source.
    under “Latin, a. and n.”:
    4. a. Hist. Applied (in opposition to Greek) to what pertains to the peoples of Western Europe, viewed in their relations with the Eastern Empire and with the Saracens and Turks. b. Used as a designation for the European peoples which speak languages descended from Latin; often with implication of the erroneous notion that these peoples are of Roman descent. Latin-American a., of or belonging to those countries in Central and South America in which Spanish or Portuguese is the dominant language (and which are often referred to collectively as Latin America); also n., an inhabitant of one of these countries. Also (ellipt.) Latin.
    Latin League: a proposed association of Latin nations, advocated by the Spanish minister Castelar in 1884, to restore the balance of power in Europe, and check the increasing influence of Germany.
    **This clearly shows the use of “Latin” as early as the 1880s as a term used to hold speakers of Romance languages together as a discrete, unified group. This doesn’t prove the claim that this term came from the French, but it does at least make this claim plausible.
    under “Latin American”:
    [f. LATIN a. + AMERICAN a. and n.]
    A. adj. a. Of or pertaining to Latin America or its peoples.
    Until the early 20th cent. Spanish American was the preferred term.
    **This shows the interesting fact that the term “Latin American” was little used before the 20th century, giving enough time for a term created in the 1860s to take hold in “Latin America” and transfer to English.
    My last name means “hat,” so my name off to languagehat!
    Geof Huth

  4. Never heard that explanation, but it seems quite plausible, given the French, ahem, slighly megalomaniac tendencies towards cultural self-aggrandizement (I’m Spanish, I know what I’m talking about).
    I do know that Borges thought the term ridiculous, and argued that then absolutely all the Western world was Latin, inasmuch as the Roman influence extended over all European cultures.

  5. I agree that Montreal is not part of Latin America. But what about Haiti? Martinique? St.Kitts/St.Christophe? Belize? IS the carribean coast of Nicaragua still part of Latin America?

  6. I have seen that explanation before, in an authoritative source, which I can’t now recall.
    Here’s a reference courtesy of Google.

  7. Those of us who greet each new morning bitter and twisted, improving only later in the day, will see Dr L as yet another outbreak of the American Disease – the ex-cathedra pronouncement (sorry!) for universal implementation by force from a guy who, mentally, has never been beyond the end of his own street.
    In some dialects all the vowels are different from standard – whose standard? which standard? fixed at what point in time? – in others it is especially easy or difficult to pronounce particular combinations. Filum, for instance, is the spoken standard in many dialects and as long as I can also spell it get off my back!
    If, as I believe, most Americans chomp their food why may they not also chomp at the bit?
    Oh, and spitting image is standard – yuk – on this side of the pond: spit and image is archaic. Enough already! I have a quilt to finish.

  8. aldiboronti says

    More backing for the tale, from
    “David Crow writes; “The meaning of “Latin American” is a subject of debate even among specialists in the region. It should be noted that, of course, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the protectorate of Puerto Rico are incontestably Latin American. On the other hand, the consensus excludes the English-speaking Caribbean countries. Most contested is the status of the French-speaking Caribbean nations. The argument for including them as part of Latin America is the origin of the term itself, an early 19th coinage of the Bonaparte regime, which dreamed of expanding into the Americas and saw all Latinate language countries as its rightful sphere of influence”. RH: It is well-known that the French invented the term “Latin America”, so the French-speaking Caribbean territories should be incuded. However, it is wrong to call them nations. They are French departments, and therefore France may regard them as part of France……”

  9. I suppose Nap III (or more likely someone in his court) might have coined “Latin America,” but how is he supposed to have made it stick? He wasn’t a colossus; he was a man trying to wear bots too big for him, and people generally knew it — the absurdity of trying to foist a French emperor on Mexico was clearly perceived at the time. Nor did he have a gift for memorable speech. If “Latin America,” stuck, its because it filled a need (an easy way to refer to the parts of North, Central, and South America in which Spanish or Portuguese were the dominant tongues.)

  10. Oops. Boots. Boots too big for him. Not bots.

  11. Well, his bots were probably too big for him too. At any rate, the question was who coined it, and it’s beginning to look like Max (or someone in his employ) was indeed the one.

  12. this explanation is true, but a little bit deformed.
    the purpose of napoleon III was not to colonized all the countries south of US border but to stop the united states expansion to the south. Just before his intervention the half of mexico was integrated to the united states, and some decades before france lost canada and louisiane.
    The fear of the french was that all the american continent became slowly an anglo-saxon continent. So they wanted to take control of central america to avoid any USA annexion of mexico in the name of the latin culture that share the french, spanish, italians and portuguese. so the name “latin-america” was quikly imposed to name this part of america were spanish and portuguese cultures dominates.
    In the same periode, in paris there were a lot of students and intelectuals from these countries. they prefered to take a distance to spanish culture (which one was at this time considered to be to much assiociated to the “conquistadores” and underdevelopement)
    So, those hispanoamericans intelectuals came back to their contries with a name that was more positive because it refers not only to iberian countries but firstly to roman civilisation and its sons : Italy, France, which are countries that represented the cultural elite of western civilisation.

  13. @ Maureen.

    “Spittin’ image” has nothing to do with expectorating. It derives from “spirit and image”. Nor is it archaic. It is still common currency in my neck of the woods.

  14. It’s from spit and image, where spit is the same word as spit ‘saliva’. Spirit, like spitting, is a folk etymology. The OED lists quite a few 19th- and 20th-century quotations for spit in the sense ‘likeness’:

    1825 A. Knapp & W. Baldwin Newgate Cal. III. 497/2 A daughter,..the very spit of the old captain.

    1836 T. Hook Gilbert Gurney I. 202 You are a queer fellow—the very spit of your father.

    1885 T. H. Hall Caine Shadow of Crime II. xxvi. 129 A brother..the spit of hissel’.

    1886 K. S. Macquoid Sir J. Appleby III. x. 143 This young chap has got his dear grandmother’s eyes, why, he’s the very spit of her.

    1901 E. W. Hornung Black Mask 37 I’ll chance you having another ring..the dead spit of mine.

    1921 ‘K. Mansfield’ Let. Sept. (1977) 232 One of his [sc. Cézanne’s] men gave me quite a shock. He’s the spit of a man I’ve just written about, one Jonathan Trout.

    1936 M. de la Roche Whiteoak Harvest v. 98 Easy for a boy to look like his grandmother. There was Renny—the spit of old Gran!

    1953 A. Upfield Murder must Wait xvii. 154 The son’s the dead spit of the old man.

    1966 ‘L. Lane’ ABZ of Scouse 25 That ther kid’s ther dead spit of ‘is gramp.

    P̝resumably the idea is that nothing is as characteristic of a person as their saliva.

  15. marie-lucie says

    América latina

    sergio, gracias

    Asi dice

    El término fue utilizado por primera vez en París en 1856 en una conferencia del filósofo chileno Francisco Bilbao y, el mismo año, por el escritor colombiano José María Torres Caicedo en su poema Las dos Américas.

    The term was used for the first time in Paris in 1856 in a lecture by the Chilean philosopher Francisco Bilbao and in the same year by the Columbian writer José María Torres Caicedo in his poem The two Americas.

    Here is the relevant part of the poem (written only a few years after the annexation of Mexican territories by the US):

    La raza de la América Latina,
    al frente tiene la sajona raza,
    enemiga mortal que ya amenaza
    su libertad destruir y su pendón.

    The race of Latin America
    confronts the Saxon race
    the mortal enemy which already threatens
    to destroy its freedom and its banner

    Bilbao’s lecture in Paris was presumably given in French, hence the French translation Amérique latine, which was picked up in government circles rather than invented there.

  16. P̝resumably the idea is that nothing is as characteristic of a person as their saliva.

    Never heard of such an idea. How many people know anything at all about the saliva of persons they know ? I sure don’t.

    Dogs are different, though, as I have learned from Sparky, our Jack Russell.

  17. Stu, at a time when people felt free to spit all over the place, they would have been closely acquainted with each other’s saliva.

  18. As I recall from years ago, the taste and viscosity of other folks’ spit is pretty much one-slime-fits-all. Any supervenient whiff of garlic or alcohol was characteristic not of the individual, but of the life style of his kind. Nowadays salival DNA can be used to identify individuals, but I doubt that “spitting image” anticipates such a technique.

  19. Do you think, marie-lucie ? That could have been so if toothpaste and mouthwash were not widely available or used. I would have thought that smells are more easily perceived than salival properties. “The stinking image”, now that would make sense.

  20. Stu, I don’t know! Toothpaste is are relatively recent invention. Some older French texts refer to people wiping their teeth with a handkerchief or similar item after meals. Chewing aromatic seeds was another method of cleaning teeth and mouth.

  21. In fact toothpaste goes back some seven thousand years to ancient Egyptian times, though it didn’t become popular until the 19th C. We don’t know how the Egyptians, the Classical Greeks, or the Romans used it, though; probably with their fingers.

  22. marie-lucie says

    JC: All right, but the Egyptian custom obviously did not make it to Western Europe (or perhaps it disappeared with the Roman Empire?), and in any case it may have been restricted to the upper classes.

    During WWII (in occupied France) my father was teaching high school math and science. One day in science class he mentioned the importance of brushing one’s teeth. One student, from a farming family, had superb teeth. My father asked him how often he brushed his teeth: Jamais, monsieur! ‘Never!’

  23. perhaps it disappeared with the Roman Empire?

    That sounds likely.

    Jamais, monsieur!

    Some people have all the (genetic) luck.

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