My understanding is that anglophones take it to mean any of the following depending on context:

  • Canada and the U.S.: by far the most common usage in most contexts, the default definition.
  • Canada, the U.S. and Mexico: usually only used when discussing some sort of political or economic aspect where Mexico enters the picture
  • Canada, the U.S., Mexico, the various Caribbean islands and Central American countries: much rarer, usually only employed in geographic discussions or with regards to associations such as CONCACAF. In fact, this connotation is often self-referential in that the speakers will tend to mention or allude to the debate about the definition of North America in that very same context.

Is the above description accurate, and is there an underlying logic to it or additional connotations I might be missing?

  • 1
    North America is Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean islands. In conversation, if a speaker is excluding Mexico, that mistake does not move that country out of the definition. Central America is not North America. And literally does not mean "figuratively, but almost practically true like it's really a literal thing," either. Oct 9, 2023 at 5:05
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    @YosefBaskin When you say "North America is..." What do you mean? The OP correctly points out that at different times, "North America" is used to mean different things. Wikipedia says NA includes Central America. Why do you say it doesn't? Also, the OP didn't use the word "literally", so why does it look like you're correcting their usage of it?
    – gotube
    Oct 9, 2023 at 5:39
  • Poor Saint Pierre and Miquelon - forgotten once again! Oct 11, 2023 at 20:31
  • @CanadianYankee I am a huge fan of SP&M but few anglophones seem to have heard of it or gazed at its beautiful technicolor flag
    – Qwokker
    Oct 12, 2023 at 14:08

2 Answers 2


Canadian here, and what you say is pretty close.

The only thing I'd add is that North Americans who don't remember life before NAFTA are much more likely to mean Mexico too in everyday speech because NAFTA was the first time those three countries were considered a continent together, to the exclusion of all other places.

Before NAFTA, the term only included Mexico in the geographical sense, and so also definitely included Greenland, and maybe Central America and/or the Caribbean.


US speaker here, to me North America generally means anything from Canada to Panama, but doesn't include the Caribbean islands at all (except where those islands belong to a country that is part of the continent proper). Less often it is only Canada, the US and Mexico. I don't think I've ever seen it used to exclude Mexico.

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    I regularly hear it used by Canadians where USians would just say "Americans", including themselves in conversations that pertain to our shared culture. Mexico isn't explicitly excluded, but it's obviously not the point. Oct 9, 2023 at 3:11
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    Interesting, in general US usage "American" would exclude Canada (if it's even thought of at all). "North American" is different. Oct 9, 2023 at 3:31

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