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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 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, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the adjective “Ukrainian” broadly as “of or pertaining to Ukraine.” And it says the noun “Ukrainian” means both “a native or inhabitant of Ukraine” and “the Slavonic language spoken in Ukraine.”

So you used the adjective correctly. It could apply to anything from a Ukrainian song to a Ukrainian official to a Ukrainian hospital to a Ukrainian sheep.

In fact, the OED’s first published use of 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 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 Ukrainian sheeps’ skin.”

And by the way, standard dictionaries (like American Heritage and Merriam-Webster) give the same definitions for “Ukrainian,” the adjective and the noun.

As for “demonym,” it generally means 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.

The OED has several definitions of the term, including the one we’re discussing: “a proper name by which a native or resident of a specific place is known.” (It can also be a certain type of pen name or personal name.)

The dictionary’s earliest citation, from the February 1990 issue of National Geographic, credits a source: “Writer Paul Dickson … has coined another term: ‘demonym.’ ”

Next is an example from a Canadian newspaper: “The ‘demonym’ for Cyprus is ‘Cypriot’ and the one for Halifax is ‘Haligonian’ ” (The Montreal Gazette, Sept. 5, 2002).

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.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 26, 2022.]

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