I'm not sure if this questions belongs in the philosophical forum or here, but I'll give it a try anyway: what is the difference between nation and people? Is there an overlapping meaning or do they just happen to coincidentally exist on the same instance? Or is it even an exact synonym?

note: I'm not talking about the meaning of nation as country.

  • 2
    You've clarified what you don't mean: how about clarifying what you do mean, maybe by using some examples. Do you mean something like What's the difference between referring to the British nation and the British people?
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 15:27
  • Yes, that is my question. I mean, are they both exact synonyms of ethnicity, or are there instances where I can describe an entity as 'a people' but not 'a nation' or vice versa.
    – Matthaeus
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 0:18
  • 1
    @Matthaeus: I would say people is a much broader term than nation. They are synonymous only in certain contexts. E.g, you could say 'the people of southern California' but I doubt they could be considered a 'nation'. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 0:31
  • 1
    @Matthaeus: just to add - it's interesting that the use of 'nation' to describe a group of people with shared identity, culture, etc seems nowadays to be used almost exclusively with respect to groups who do not have a homeland or nation in the modern sense, such as the Roma, north American indigenous peoples, and so on. Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 0:36
  • There are no such things as exact synonyms. Every different sound has its own nuances. Frankly even a word itself isn't always an exact synonym with itself (it can have multiple nuances). Here, 'nation' is more formal, 'people' is medium and boring, and folk is ... well.. folksy.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 2:09

2 Answers 2


The word nation has its origin in the Latin natio-, from nat- meaning 'born'. It refers to a body of people united by birth, history, language, culture, and so on. The idea of a nation as a sovereign state came later, the notion of borders being a relatively recent invention.

Consider the term First Nations, which is used to refer to the indigenous peoples of Canada, for example. The term is also applied to other groups of people who are without a country (in the modern sense), such as the Roma.

The term people (from Latin populus) can be defined as above for nation. I would say the two words are synonymous in this context.


Well, first of all I am no expert in these things, but I'll try to give you at least a LOGICAL explanation of the BIG DIFFERENCE between those two terms. But before I start with it, let me remind you on that gradation starting with a PERSON, and going on with FAMILY, then CLAN, then TRIBE, then PEOPLE and finally ending with NATION. I may have skipped a stage or two, but the main thing is, you get the picture of that development, so it becomes easier for you to understand my following explanation.

"People" (German: Volk) refers to a group of tribes.

"Nation" (German: Nation) refers to a group of peoples.

"People" equals "Ethnicity", whereas "Nation" is sort of OVER-ETHNIC, because it doesn't sum up in only one ethnicity or people.

The German word for "Nation" is "Vielvölkerstaat", which actually means "A State of many peoples".

So, if we take the Americans as an example, we can say this: As the term "People" or "Ethnicity" is concerned, they are all different, since they consist of English, French, Germans or Spanish - to name just 4 of the many peoples living there. But as the term "Nation" is concerned, they are all one and the same, since they all belong to the same NATION, which consists of SEVERAL PEOPLES.

Most of the Countries in the world consist of Nations. Some consist of Peoples, like it's the case with Russia, for the simple reason the VAST MAJORITY of the people in Russia are Russians (and the rest of them are "minorities").

The Americans call themselves a NATION, they talk about the American NATION. When they say "American People", they don't refer to the ethnicity of the Peoples living there, but to ALL AMERICAN MEN AND WOMEN.

So, the term "People" can only be CONFUSED with or MISTAKENLY used instead of the term "Nation". But if we want to tell the exact meaning of those two terms, we should bear in mind the fact that "People" and "Nation" are by no means of one and the same meaning. "People" is connected with Genesis, Biology and Genetics, while "Nation" is a SOCIOLOGICAL term, just like it's the case with the difference between the terms "Physician" and "Doctor" resp. "Teacher" and "Professor" - the first ones being founded on A GIFT, the second ones being INSTITUTIONAL TITLES.

  • 1
    Welcome to ELU. Thank you for your answer. Please consider using italics instead of all-caps for emphasis. I am also missing the reason why you use German words for the explanation, that could be more clear. Why do you consider nation sociological and not political?
    – Helmar
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 7:33
  • The word 'nation' can have different nuances in english. The more commonly used is the one you are referring to, namely a post Westphalian sovereign nation-state: as in "the french nation". I'm not talking about that one, rather, i'm referring to the meaning of a collection of people of shared identity or heritage, like "the first nations".
    – Matthaeus
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 2:09
  • Since I believe Helmar and Matthaeus are Germans, I'll insert a link that leads to a German book for children, where the lexemes "Volk" and "Nation" are being explained. You know, it would be disastrous if the children are being taught something, that they find refuted when they grow up. A basic knowledge, put in a simple language suiting children, must not be essentially changed later; it should only be deeper elaborated, but not changed essentially, or else the children would have learnt it all in vain. kidsweb.de/schule/kidsweb_spezial/indianer_spezial/… Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 7:21
  • To answer your questions: Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 7:22
  • On your questions: 1. I used German words because they show the difference between "People" and "Nation" much better than their English equivalents do. 2. "Nation" is both sociological and political, by mentioning "sociological" I didn't exclude "political". Actually, I was just trying to stress the big difference between those two terms, since "People" or "Volk" isn't sociological/political, but only biological or genetic. The word "Volk" derives from "voll" - meaning "full" , or from "viele" - meaning "many" and as such it refers to a multitude of people, not to their political formation. Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 7:34

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.