Final Word

The race of racism a marathon


There seems to be a desperate race (as in running) on between various groups in South Africa to determine who can be first past the post with an answer to the country’s race (as in ethnic origin) problems.

Issues surrounding race as in ethnicity, has never been far from the surface in South African recorded history or most of the world, for that matter. In fact, evidence that human kind has had race based prejudices can be traced back to biblical times.

Consider for instance the following quote from Romans 10:11-12: “Anyone who trust in him will never be put to shame. For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him …”. (Our emphasis.)

Unsure lineage

Where the word in this context, however, comes from is not so sure at all and the subject of quite some debate amongst etymologist, as is the one of how it came about that humanity has different races in the first place.

About the origin of the word, in the sense of “people of common descent,” the website tells us that it arrived in English during the 16th century from Middle French, in turn from an earlier word razza, for race,breed, lineage and family, It possibly came from Italian’s razza, but is of “unknown unknown origin (cognate with Spanish and Portuguese raza).

Etymologists say (it has) no connection with Latin radix ‘root,’ though they admit this might have influenced the ‘tribe, nation’ sense.

 Originally it in English it was also used to distinguish between wines with different characteristic flavours, groups of people with common occupations and/or generations.

By the 1560s it was also used to indicate a tribe, nation or people regarded as of common stock. But it was about a century later (1774) before it was used in the modern sense of indicating “one of the great divisions of mankind based on physical peculiarities."  

On the blog The Oxford Etymologist, one Anatoly Liberman writes that although we know that it came via French to English, and some other European languages, “its distant origin has been a matter of debate for more than a century. Only one fact seemed to be certain, namely that despite the success of race (as a word) the story began with Italian razza.

“The debate raged only over whether, in Italian, razza was native (that is, going back to some Latin noun) or whether the Italians had taken it over from somewhere else.”

Some conflicting hypotheses have been developed by language historians, but a final answer remains outstanding.

To complicate things Italian, where one would look at Latin for an answer, in this case does not work. Latin had a different term for the phenomenon of distinct groups of people, genus, meaning birth, descent, origin, race, stock, or family.

The Latin word is cognate with Greek’s "genos" (γένος) meaning largely the same as in Latin.


In Anthropology, the study of human biological and physiological characteristics and their evolution, the debate, or theories if you want, about how, when and why distinct groups or races of people developed – or was created – likewise has a long and complicated history.

The debate and theories goes back to ancient civilizations, where culture and cultural norms seem to have played a more important role in “classifying” groups of people than physical appearance.

Just about the only constant over time is the ever-present bias when different races are described. For example, an historian of the 3rd century Han Dynasty in the territory of present-day China, describes barbarians of blond hair and green eyes as resembling "the monkeys from which they are descended.”

It sounds frightfully familiar to some of the racialist rants on social media that has become common in present day South Africa.

The running race

The use of the word “race” in the sense of dashing to see who would be first to the winning line, however has a fairly clear lineage and it seems to be a mere coincidence that same word exists for the two different concepts.

The website in this instance tells us that “race,” as an "act of running," arrived in English during the 14th century as ræs and originated in Old Norse’s ras, for “"running, rush (of water)."

In Old English, the word ræs, however, had a wider range of meanings and included besides “running” also a rush, a leap/jump, a storming and/or an attack.

The Norse and Old English words both originated from Proto-Germanic’s res, which is also the root of Middle Dutch’ rasen for "to rave” or ‘rage," and German’s rasen for rush.,

In English, the word was firs recorded as a "contest of speed" in the 1510s.

Final word

Judged by the present public discourse about race, in the ethic sense of the word, the race between black and white to be judged as the most, or the least, racist (a term first recorded in 1907) has become a marathon that is unlikely to be won by anyone any time soon – if ever.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

Final Word

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