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Describing the history of humanity as a 'race' might seem odd to a listener who hadn't heard it before.

Is the image behind this phrase alluding to the idea that human beings reproduce and pass on the responsibility for our culture and civilisation to our children, in the same way that a relay runner passes on a baton?

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No. These are two different words, which have accidentally come to have the same spelling and pronunciation. – StoneyB Jun 30 '13 at 1:12

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

No, those are two different words.

The race as in a ‘foot race’, is per the OED:

a. ONor. rás (Norw. and Sw. dial. raås), running, race, rush (of water), course, channel, row, series = OE. rǽs rese; of obscure etym. Orig. a northern word, coming into general use about the middle of the 16th c.

Whereas the other one, as in the ‘human race’, is again per the OED:

a. Fr. race, earlier also rasse (1512), a. Ital. razza = Sp. raza, Pg. raça, of obscure origin.

The first one has Scottish uses from the 1300s, while the other took a couple more centuries to first appear. Both came to prevalence in the same century, though.

Although both seem to lead to obscure origins, no one thinks it is the same singular origin for both.


The RAE says that the Spanish raza mentioned by the OED as being of obscure origin actually derives from a putative Latin *radĭa, and that of course from the normal radĭus. That means the same thing as our race as in the human race. (Not to be confused with raíz from Latin radix meaning root.)

Just goes to show that one should always check more than one dictionary.

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+1, excellent answer, but there is to add that "También existen otros especialistas que abogan por seguir utilizando la palabra raza, ya que ésta está destinada para definir a personas que comparten ciertos rasgos anatómicos diferentes a otros individuos de la misma especie," though. – user19148 Jun 30 '13 at 2:14
@Carlo_R. Yes, it’s a “charged” word in any language I guess. – tchrist Jun 30 '13 at 2:16
Ok - just digging into this idea - if the word race comes from radial - does that mean the word 'human race' is more the idea of cycles repeating itself, rather than a baton being passed on? – hawkeye Jun 30 '13 at 4:37
@hawkeye: No. Firstly, Latin radius means "ray; rod; spoke" (and even in English it doesn't mean anything like "cycle"; it refers to one part of a circle, but if all circle-related words had "the idea of cycles repeating itself", then radial, diametric, circular, cyclical, and central would all be near-synonyms). Secondly, language doesn't work that way; any etymological connection to Latin radius would have been dead before the word entered English. – ruakh Jun 30 '13 at 8:56
Fair enough - would it be fair to say that 'race' in this context is more of a categorizing or 'typing' term - contrasting the 'human race' with the 'dog race'. – hawkeye Jun 30 '13 at 22:32

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