What is the distinction between homeland, motherland and fatherland?

  1. Is there any difference in meaning of such terms?
  2. When it comes to connotations are there any differences, except for the relation to Russia or Germany?

The main semantic difference in English is that while all terms refer to one's native land or country of origin, motherland and fatherland also have the connotation of the land of one's ancestors.

Therefore, motherland/fatherland aren't as often applied to countries in the Americas, even if many of us have lived here for a dozen generations or more.


The term homeland is relatively recent in U.S. English. It debuted in Webster's Eighth Collegiate Dictionary (1973) with the definition, "native land: fatherland." Subsequently, the Ninth Collegiate (1983) added a second definition: "a state or area set aside to be a state for a people of a particular national, cultural, or racial origin." And the Tenth Collegiate (1993), as if to clarify that homeland in the second sense does not apply to the reservation system administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the United States, added the words "esp : BANTUSTAN" to the second definition.

In contrast, the terms motherland and fatherland have appeared in Webster's dictionaries since the American Dictionary of the English Language of 1847. That dictionary defined motherland as "The land of one's mother or parents," and fatherland as "The native land of one's fathers or ancestors."

The Homeland Security Act, which created the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was enacted quite recently (in 2002). This may help to explain why none of the fairly recent U.S. dictionaries I consulted includes a definition of homeland along the lines of "a core territorial possession, as designated by a national government." However, that meaning seems to be at the heart of homeland as used in connection with U.S. national security; and I wouldn't be surprised to see it emerge as a definition in future dictionaries, considering that the two existing definitions fail to cover that sense of the term adequately.

  • How do you know which edition carried a word first? (I'm not challenging you; I would like to learn how to do that.) – J.R. Mar 1 '13 at 22:35
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    Hi, J.R. A 1970 reprint of Webster's Compendious Dictionary of the English language (1806) contains "a chronology of major dictionaries edited by Noah Webster and Merriam-Webster." The crucial years for the unabridged dictionaries are 1806, 1828, 1840, 1847, 1864, 1890, 1909, 1934, and 1961; and for the Collegiate series, the years are 1898, 1910, 1916, 1931, 1936, 1949, 1963, 1973, 1983, 1993, and 2003. I have copies of all of the Collegiates and all but one of the early bigs (through 1890). To see when a word first appears, I use brute force—checking each dictionary in turn. – Sven Yargs Mar 2 '13 at 1:50
  • The edition I don't have is the 1840 Webster's, which I understand is very similar to the 1847 Merriam-Webster's that I do have. In the case of motherland and fatherland, neither appears in the big 1828 Webster's and I don't know whether it appears in the 1840, so all I can say for sure is that they have been included since 1847. – Sven Yargs Mar 2 '13 at 1:55
  • One further warning: Some of the Collegiates include a "New Words" section in later printings of the same edition, so you have to check them, too, to be completely rigorous; even more problematic are the later Collegiates, which sometimes embed new terms in the main body of the dictionary. Thus the 1993 through 1997 printings of the Tenth Collegiate lack an entry for feng shui, but the 1999 printing of the Tenth Collegiate includes it (making space for the new entry on the affected page of the layout by cutting examples and shortening definitions of other entries). – Sven Yargs Mar 2 '13 at 2:10
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    ...in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series. The Collegiate dictionaries are abridged versions of the corresponding full-size Merriam-Webster New International Dictionaries, with far fewer entries than the latter contain. To achieve that smaller size, they include only words in (then) current, widespread use. For this reason, I think the absence of homeland (or home land) from the Collegiate series until 1973 is a sign of how unimportant Merrriam-Webster considered it until then. I also not that the full-size Webster's New International Dictionary (1926) didn't have it either. – Sven Yargs May 2 '16 at 4:30

Motherland isn't common in English. Fatherland I would avoid unless you are talking about a specific era of German history.

Homeland is the nearest normal term for your "country of origin" but is a lot less common and doesn't have the added deep meaning that say, "motherland" would in Russia.
As a result of the US airport security I don't think "Homeland" is going to become a popular patriotic term.

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    The word homeland has been in use long enough; I'm not sure the TSA will be able to reverse its meaning. – J.R. Mar 1 '13 at 16:11

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