The Grammarphobia Blog

Aboriginal meaning

Q: I was taught that “Aborigine” is a noun and “Aboriginal” is an adjective. I’d refer to one of the indigenous people of Australia as “an Aborigine” or “an Aboriginal person.” It irks me when people refer to “an Aboriginal” or “an Australian Aboriginal.” Where do you stand on these terms?

A: We’re a house divided. Pat uses “Aborigines” as a noun for the indigenous people of Australia and “aboriginals” as a noun for other indigenous people. Stewart uses “Aborigines” and “aborigines” in those contexts.

However, this is a matter of personal taste. There’s no right or wrong here.

We checked seven standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and all but one say indigenous people can be referred to as either “aborigines” or “aboriginals.”  In reference to Australia, the terms are usually capitalized.

“Aborigines,” the older English noun, comes directly from the Latin aborigines, a plural noun for the pre-Roman inhabitants of Italy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Latin, ab origine means from the beginning.

When the word entered English in the early 1500s, it was only plural and referred only to the original inhabitants of Latium, the Italian region that includes Rome.

But by the early 1600s, according to the OED, the term was being used more loosely to refer to “the earliest known inhabitants of a particular country.”

The word “aboriginal,” which entered English as an adjective in the mid-1600s, initially referred to the earliest people, plants, or animals in an area.

When the term was first used as a noun in the mid-1700s, the OED says, it referred to “an original or earliest inhabitant of a land, esp. as distinguished from a later settler.”

In the early 1800s, according to Oxford citations, the two nouns were first used to describe the indigenous people of Australia.

Here’s an 1803 citation for “Aborigines” from the Australian National Dictionary: “Nature not having furnished it with food sufficient to maintain any other race of men than the Aborigines.”

And here’s an 1828 citation for “Aboriginal” from the Hobart Town Courier: “Nothing herein contained shall authorize … any Settler … to make use of force (except for necessary self-defence) against any Aboriginal.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, according to the OED, that “the singular form aborigine was formed from the English plural.”

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