Final Word

The race is on between the racists


On the issue of race, South African political parties and leaders have been engaged in a race against one another to see who can occupy the moral high ground.

Etymologically speaking the most interesting fact is that the word ‘race’ in its two meanings arrived in the English language along two totally independent routes.

‘Race’ in the sense of moving fast – sometimes in the context of competition – came along a simpler, clearer route and won the race into English.

In the sense of ‘rushing’, it arrived during the 13th century. It was first recorded in the sense of ‘running swiftly’ in 1757; to mean ‘run in competition against’ in 1809; in the transitive sense of ‘cause to run’ in 1860; and in connection with engines, like in ‘run at an uncontrolled speed’, in 1862.

It originated from the Old Norse word rás, meaning ‘current’ as the flow of a river, and was originally a northern English word with the sense ‘rapid forward movement’. It was also probably helped along its way by the Old English cognate ‘ræsan’, meaning to ‘rush headlong, hasten, enter rashly’.

The other race

The origin of the word ‘race’ in the sense of the dividing or classifying humanity – and animals for that matter – is a bit more complicated to pin down.

In fact, the race is still on between linguists to come up with the definitive answer as to the origin of the word and a debate is still raging as to whether it is ‘racist’ to use such classifications for humans. Race, being a social concept, has also undergone some changes in meaning over the centuries. 

Several theories exist about the origin of the word. The most common theory is that it arrived in English via Middle French which in turn got it from the Old Italian razza, meaning ‘stud’ or ‘breed’. It was first recorded in 1580.

But there are also those who strongly argue that it actually started with the Spaniards, who used the classification of people in higher and lower classes as a rationale for conquering different-looking people in distant lands. Some scholars claim that modern racism indeed originated with the Spaniards.

As one source puts it: “Most likely it (the word race) came from Spanish, which is where the English also got ‘Indian’ and ‘Negro.’ Back then the Spanish word for race would have sounded like ‘reazza’ to the English, of which ‘race’ is a reasonable anglicization. The Spanish word also had the same meaning as in Shakespeare: breeds of horses or men.”

From around the 9th century the Spaniards had quite a thing about classifying people, starting with the notion that an aristocrat's blood is not red but blue. It would culminate in the limpieza de sangre doctrine commonly used during the colonisation of the Americas as basis for the racial separation of the various peoples.

It also led to an intricate nomenclature to describe an individual’s precise race and  place in society, from mestizo (50% Spaniard and 50% Native American), Mulatto (50% European and 50% African and still in use today) to Albarazado (43.75% Native American, 29.6875% European, and 26.5625% African).

Even a legend from the Bible would be roped in, despite the fact that neither the concept of race or skin colour as a dividing line between people appears in it.

Especially in reference to some Afroasiatic peoples, the term ‘Hamite’ was created for those who supposedly descended from Noah's son Ham, paralleling Semitic and Japhetic.

On this construction of the legend, holding that Ham was ‘cursed’ by blackness, among other things, was built justification for the slave trade.

More theories

For the sake of a more complete reflection of the debate on the origin of the word ‘race’, it should be mentioned that there was an Old German noun reiza, meaning ‘straight line, stroke or mark’.

There is also a theory that the Italian razza originated from the Latin word radix, meaning ‘root’, with Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘race’ probably linking back to radix and its related radicem in Latin. Old and Middle French also had racine from radix.

There are also those who argue that razza might have come from the Latin word generatio or generation via naraccia via una narazza or ‘a generation’.

A final word

Be this as it may, while President Jacob Zuma is accused of racism for holding Jan van Riebeeck responsible for South Africa’s troubles, it is interesting that he is not the first one harbouring that kind of view of history.

The French nobleman, writer and historian Henri de Boulainvilliers during the late 17th century opposed the absolute monarchy, claiming the French aristocrats were the descendants of foreign “Frank” invaders.

This notion would later become one of the driving forces behind the French Revolution of the 18th century.

by Piet Coetzer

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