words : Ethnic

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SIR Paul Condon's suggestion that there are more black muggers than white ones has angered some ethnic minority groups - a phrase which sounds a little over-pompous, a little too like socio-babble, until you realise that it's the only one that will do. Ethnic is meant to be dignified and non-committal, whereas its alternative, racial, has long had unpleasant overtones, particularly since the Nazis started advertising their racial superiority. It is not surprising that those who need to discuss such matters should have sought some thicker ice to skate on; and ethnic seemed safe enough. Similarities may properly be described as racial (as in "racial equality"), but differences may only be ethnic. Racial is far too close to racist. (Ethnicist is only another word for ethnologist, a person whose preoccupation with race is purely academic).

So far so good. Ethnos is the Greek for "nation", and ethnic costume is national costume. But already ethnic has acquired its own overtones. In the United States (and increasingly in Britain) it can mean quaint, bizarre or "other" - in brief, foreign. It has lost its neutral stance. In this sense it has gone back to its roots. An ethnikos in ancient Greece meant a national, but also a heathen. Ta ethne is used for Gentiles in the Greek New Testament.

However, it is only in the past four years or so that ethnic has really gone downhill. "Ethnic cleansing" was well defined in the Boston Globe in July 1992 as "a term first used just over a year ago by a Serb paramilitary [which] has become the most popular euphemism for terrorism and atrocities in Yugoslavia", but its application has since become general, putting ethnic down there in the dirt with the nastier connotations of racial.

Nicholas Bagnall