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Ethnic

A headline in the Times of London just before Christmas read: “Leicester to be first city with ethnic majority”. It sounds daft since, when you think about it, most cities have an ethnic majority of one sort or another. But that wasn’t what the Times’ headline writer had in mind, of course.

Ethnic has had an interesting history. It started its life in English as long ago as the fourteenth century; it came from the Greek ethnikos, heathen, from ethnos, nation. It meant the same in English as it did in Greek, and it was applied indiscriminately to anyone who was not a Christian or a Jew: a pagan. Thomas Carlyle used it this way in 1851 in his Life of John Sterling: “I find at this time his religion is as good as altogether Ethnic, Greekish, what Goethe calls the Heathen form of religion”.

By that time, it seems that for most people the word had lost the connection with religion — disparaging in effect if not in intent — and had adopted a more neutral one of a person belonging to an identifiable culture with common racial, social, religious, or linguistic characteristics, very much the way we use it now when we speak formally. By the time Carlyle was writing, the Greek root had been used to make ethnography and ethnology for the study of other cultures. The word never quite lost its disparaging edge, however, being so often attached in Europe and North America to people who were considered “lesser breeds”.

It was only from the 1950s onwards that the term started to be applied widely and generally to aspects of cultures, especially from non-Western traditions. By the seventies ethnobotany, ethnoarchaeology, ethnoscience and others had been invented. We also began to see phrases like ethnic music and ethnic clothing in this period, causing ethnic to soften in sense until in everyday use now it often means little more than “exotic” or “foreign”. But by 1991 the awful term ethnic cleansing had begun to appear, first in the former Yugoslavia, probably as a loan translation of a Serbian term dating from the 1940s, a usage from which ethnic may never quite recover.

By then we had also seen ethnic minority coined to describe a distinctive minority group within another, dominant culture. It’s this phrase that the headline writer in the Times was playing with when writing about the racial mix in Leicester, where many local people have their origins in the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent and China.

The headline really says that in Leicester “the foreigners are outnumbering us”, an understandable reference, though one that gives rise to suspicions of unconscious xenophobia. It would be a great pity if that were the case, since Leicester is easily the most racially harmonious multicultural city in the UK.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Jan. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-eth1.htm
Last modified: 20 January 2001.