The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is the human race called a race?

Q: I’m curious about the phrase “human race.” As far as I can see, we don’t refer to any other species as a race. Why is that? And are the terms “human race” and “human species” interchangeable?

A: Today we don’t refer to other species as races, but at one time we commonly did. Now the use of “race” to mean species survives chiefly in the phrase “human race.” So yes, I’d say the phrases “human race” and “human species” are interchangeable.

The noun “race” came into English in the mid-1500s from French, which got it from the Italian word razza (meaning species or kind).

The source of razza has never been determined, but it could possibly be derived from the Latin words ratio (i.e., ratio) or generatio (generation), or from the Old French haraz (which referred to horses and mares kept for breeding, and which may in turn be connected to the Arabic faras, or horse).

Whatever its origins, this sense of “race” is unrelated to the identical English word for a rushing forward (as in a footrace), which comes from early Scandinavian sources.

Over the centuries, “race” has been interpreted extremely narrowly (the descendants of a single house; a single line of descent; one’s children or family); very broadly (the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdom; a single species); and everything in between (nations, tribes, ethnic groups).

In the phrase “human race,” the word essentially means “species.” Soon after “race” entered the language, one of its meanings (sometimes poetic and sometimes literal) was mankind, and it often was preceded by the adjective “human.”

Sir Philip Sidney wrote of “the humane race” (circa 1590) and Shakespeare of “the whole race of mankinde” (c. 1616). Sometimes people spoke of the sexes as different races – as in the “race of woman kind” (Spenser, 1590), and “the unscrupulous race of men” (Henry James, 1897).

The word was formerly used in the same way to refer to species of plants and animals, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Macbeth, for example, Shakespeare called Duncan’s horses “Beauteous, and swift, the Minions of their Race” (c. 1616).

John Dryden wrote of “the wolfish race … with belly Gaunt, and famish’d face” (1687); Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator, mentioned “the several Races of Plants” (1712); Oliver Goldsmith called serpents “this formidable race” (1774); and Shelley said, “I wished the race of cows were perished” (c. 1822).

Under its definition of “race” as “any of the major groupings of mankind, having in common distinct physical features or having a similar ethnic background,” the OED adds this note:

“In recent years, the associations of race with the ideologies and theories that grew out of the work of 19th-cent. anthropologists and physiologists has led to the word often being avoided with reference to specific ethnic groups. Although it is still used in general contexts, it is now often replaced by terms such as people(s), community, etc.”

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