I've seen the word population most commonly used in the context of the magnitude of a community or group e.g. "The population of the United States is 320 million". I have also seen it used to simply refer to the collective e.g. "The immigrant population of X experience low levels of racism."

Which is the primary or original meaning: magnitude or collective noun?

Edit: So, etymology suggests that the collective noun is the original meaning. When did it change in popular use?


According to the OED, neither one is the original meaning in English. The first citation is from 1544, and is:

  1. A populated or inhabited place. Obs.

And their clearest citation for this sense is:

1578 T. Nicholas tr. F. Lopez de Gómara Pleasant Hist. Conquest W. India They received their advise that neere at hand were great populations [Sp. poblaciones], and soone after he came to Zimpanzinco.

The next citation not in this sense is:

1612 Bacon Ess. Not the hundredth poll will be fit for a helmet, and so great population and little strength.

and most of the early citations after this are in the sense of the magnitude of a group.


Given that the word population is derived from the Latin populus, which translates as people, I believe that it was originally meant to be a collective noun.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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