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?


2 Answers 2


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.

  • +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, 2013 at 2:14
  • 1
    @Carlo_R. Yes, it’s a “charged” word in any language I guess.
    – tchrist
    Jun 30, 2013 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, 2013 at 4:37
  • 1
    @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, 2013 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, 2013 at 22:32


'YES' is the answer to the Question: Does the phrase "human Race" Allude to the idea of a relay?

The following Letter from George Washington provides credence to this allusion.

Letter from George Washington to the Grand Master of Free Masons of Massachusetts George Washington December 27, 1792

To the Grand Master of the Free & Accepted Masons, for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Flattering as it may be to the human mind, & truly honorable as it is to receive from our fellow citizens testimonies of approbation for exertions to promote the public welfare; it is not less pleasing to know that the milder virtues of the heart are highly respected by a society whose liberal principles must be founded in the immediate laws of truth and justice. To enlarge the sphere of social happiness is worthy the benevolent design of the Masonic Institution; and it is most fervently to be wished, that the conduct of every member of the fraternity, as well as those publications which discover the principles which actuate them may tend to convince Mankind that the grand object of Masonry is to promote the happiness of the human race.

While I beg your acceptance of my thanks for the "Book of Constitutions" you have sent me, and the honor you have done me in the dedication, permit me to assure you that I feel all those emotions of gratitude which your affectionate address & cordial wishes are calculated to inspire: and I sincerely pray that the Great Architect of the Universe may bless you and receive you hereafter into his immortal Temple.

G. Washington

  • No it doesn't. There is no allusion to racing in that passage. Jan 27, 2016 at 20:19

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