The Grammarphobia Blog

An adjective in sheep’s clothing

Q: A client objected when I referred to a “Ukrainian clinical hospital.” He said it was incorrect to use “Ukrainian” to refer to anything but the people or nation of the Ukraine. He mentioned something about demonyms. Please clarify.

A: We can’t find any evidence to support what your client suggests. We’ve consulted all our usage guides as well as the Oxford English Dictionary and standard dictionaries.

The OED defines the adjective “Ukrainian” broadly as “of or pertaining to the Ukraine.” That would include anything from a Ukrainian official to a Ukrainian hospital to a Ukrainian sheep.

In fact, the OED’s first published reference to the adjective –  from a travel journal written in 1804 by Martha Wilmot, an Anglo-Irish gentlewoman – refers to Ukrainian sheep.

We’ve found the original online and expanded the dictionary’s citation, which describes a Hungarian merchant: “He was a tall slight young Man, very tall, his dress a jacket lin’d with Ukranian sheeps’ skin.”

The OED says the word “Ukrainian” can also be used as a noun meaning (a) “a native or inhabitant of the Ukraine” and (b) “the Slavonic language spoken in the Ukraine; formerly also called Malo-Russian, Ruthenian.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) give the same meanings for the adjective and noun.

A “demonym,” by the way, is the name for an inhabitant of a place that’s the source of the name. For example, “Afghan” is the name for an inhabitant of Afghanistan, which in turn is the source of the name.

We can’t find the word “demonym” in standard dictionaries, but it’s popular among geographers as well as geographer wannabes on the Web.

We’ve read that the term first appeared in print in Names’ Names: A Descriptive and Prescriptive Onymicon, a 1988 work by George H. Scheetz, but we haven’t been able to find a copy to check this out.

The OED does, however, have an 1893 citation for the word “demonymic,” which it describes as an adjective or noun that can refer to an Athenian citizen. It’s derived from deme, Greek for people.

In short, “Ukrainian” is indeed a demonym – a noun for an inhabitant of a place that’s the origin of the noun – but like many other demonyms (“American,” for example), it’s also an adjective that can refer to just about anything that concerns that place.

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