For a certain kind of person, using a construction with "the" and a demonym is hopelessly archaic, indicative of some sort of racial discomfort on the part of the speaker. For example, to say, "I am friendly with the Blacks" instead of, "I am friendly with Blacks" is often a point of comedy for some, suggestive that the speaker in actuality has a strained or unfamiliar relationship with that particular ethnic group. As of this question's writing, a Donald Trump, a United States presidential candidate, is widely in the news, and is, to my perception, widely mocked for his continued use of such constructions.

But why should this be so? Consider: "I am friendly with the Amish" and "I am friendly with the Jews". The latter does sound a bit more strange to my ear, but neither sounds that off-key. My question is, is there some sort of rationale or rule at what point a demonym must depart from "the" to not sound socially awkward? Is the strained quality of such constructions, which I can recognize, merely a social recognition—that is, I am recognizing that it is marked only through learned social cues—or is there in fact a deeper logic to this awkwardness?

  • 4
    Maybe because using the adds an implication that the race is a single unified group, completely separate and distinct from the speaker's own race or other races in general? Same kind of reason adding people is preferred: "Jewish people", "people of color", "handicapped people", etc. a reminder that these groups are human beings, not defined by their race, religion, physical capabilites, and so on. Not "the Blacks [you know them, wink wink]", but "Black people". – Dan Bron Sep 20 '15 at 11:54
  • "friendly with the Amish" and "friendly with the Jews" both sound off to me. – sumelic Sep 20 '15 at 11:58
  • 3
    Like Dan Bron said, the issue might be a possible implication of "all of the Amish/Jews/Blacks/women" (as if they are are the same). "I have friends who are black" sounds more natural, although it's widely considered the kind of thing that only needs to be said by someone suspected of being racist. But then again, grouping people can be fine if done with other wording: "I have close ties to the Black community" seems OK to me. It's a complicated matter. – sumelic Sep 20 '15 at 12:01
  • Also, keep in mind that when people criticize or mock a politician's choice of words, the reason may actually be entirely to do with their opinions of the politician (or of the politician's opinions). A linguistic example: people often make claims about politicians' first-person-pronoun use that are completely disconnected with the linguistic facts. That's because the actual motivation is simply to say "this politician is narcissistic." So if people think Trump is racist, they'll be more likely to find his wording racist, even if there's nothing special about it in and of itself. – sumelic Sep 20 '15 at 12:08
  • 1
    Your question makes assumptions not proven. Why should we assume without proof that such usage constitutes "prospective evidence of racial discomfort"? – Robusto Sep 20 '15 at 12:15

I've read all the comments so far and believe they all make valid points. I'll make a stab at an answer.

In Britain the RNIB is an institution for the benefit of blind people. It has undergone several name changes, the penultimate of which is relevant in my opinion. I quote:

How our name has changed

On 10 March 1869 we became the British and Foreign Blind Association for Improving the Embossed Literature of the Blind and Promoting their Employment. In 1914 the name of our organisation changed to The National Institute for the Blind, or NIB.

We are renamed RNIB

Our name was officially changed to the Royal National Institute for the Blind in 1953, having received the Royal Charter in 1949.

In 2002 our name changed to the Royal National Institute of Blind People rather than 'for' blind people when we became a Membership organisation.

History of RNIB

Those who read carefully will detect a hiccup in that tale. There is no explicit mention of how 'for the Blind' became 'for Blind people' or why it did.

I can't give the dates but my recollection is that 'for the Blind' changed during the latter portion of the 20th century to 'for Blind people', for politically correct reasons. Despite my own personal dislike of political correctness in general, I absolutely agreed with that change. Calling a sector of the community 'the blind' depersonalizes them. However this simply wasn't an issue for most of the 20th century.

Dan Bron's comment sums this up nicely so I'll quote it, but edit to make it more general:

"...using 'the' adds an implication that the [group] is a single unified group, completely separate and distinct from the speaker's own [group] in general

  • +1 for the intriguing example. Interestingly, whereas "for the Blind" hints at a group of people segregated or quarantined or ghettoized or entirely determined by their identity as blind people, "for the Blind Community" might pass muster, perhaps as implying that a whole community might consist of people with many and varied attitudes and opinions on all sorts of subjects, as opposed to operating in lockstep as a monolithic entity. But semantically I don't see a lot of difference between the two; perhaps adding community works for reasons not related to any strict sense of the term? – Sven Yargs Sep 21 '15 at 2:33

protected by tchrist Feb 5 '17 at 0:09

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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