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In English, the term for a person of Spanish descent is (at least traditionally) a Spaniard.

Its etymology is, as far as I can tell, pretty unique among modern words:

c. 1400, from Old French Espaignart, from Espaigne "Spain," from Latin "Hispania", from Greek Hispania "Spain" (Etymonline)

Now-a-days, for different nationalities we use all sorts of suffices:

  • -ish (Danish†, Spanish)
  • -i (Iraqi, Israeli)
  • -an (American, Australian)
  • -ese (Japanese, Chinese)

Using these we can either form an adjective and bung person after it or, as with those in bold, use the adjective as a noun, e.g. an Israeli

It is interesting to note that the terms 'Dane', 'Swede' and 'Fin(n?)' are all in use and one presumes that there is an Anglo-Saxon link here

My questions are as follows:

  1. Why can we use the adjective as a noun with some countries and not others?
  2. Why do some countries have a traditional noun form and others don't? (Excluding epithets and slurs)
  • 1
    Idiomatic usages like this don't always follow clear-cut rules. To my ear, a Spaniard sounds at the very least "quaint" today (on a par with, say, a Chinaman), but whereas I can just about get my head around He's a Chinese, I have no equivalent for a Spanish person - I just have to go adjectival and say He's Spanish with no article. – FumbleFingers Aug 11 '16 at 12:56
  • @FumbleFingers I pretty much agree with you there, although Chinaman sounds rather like veiled racism, while, for me, Spaniard has no such connotation. Nevertheless, is there not a socio-linguistic pattern between which countries have 'Spaniard-equivalents' or not? – BladorthinTheGrey Aug 11 '16 at 13:02
  • 1
    It's all a bit subjective, to say the least. And things change over time - nowadays we say someone is a Mongolian, for example, because Mongol has acquired pejorative overtones. I'd like to say the same thing has happened with Frenchman (which has become so offensive it's now considered more polite to call them cheese-eating surrender monkeys), but I think I might be on shaky ground with that one! :) – FumbleFingers Aug 11 '16 at 13:13
  • Just because our foreign secretary uses a phrase doesn't mean that it's appropriate, but I do like cheese-eating surrender monkeys! :-) – BladorthinTheGrey Aug 11 '16 at 13:19
  • as a not cheese-eating Frenchman (lactose intolerant) and who did not surrender to anybody in my lifetime (I had knifes and gun pointed at me, and never flinch, I walked by a 4 meter crocodile on a road and did not back up ) I resent that. – P. O. Aug 11 '16 at 13:21
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Most current countries are actually pretty young. So most terms describing people of those countries are equally young. Also most of those new terms are coined by either comparably educated people (ship captains in earlier times, governments in latter times). More colloquial forms are more likely to evolve in everyday speech.

Looking at the wikipedia page for the names of citizens of countries some patterns emerge. First of all, the overwhelming number of words end in -an. That makes sense considering the etymology you already provided.

The ending -ese is mostly referring to islands or at least places that were most likely reached by ships (in the time the words were created). That makes also sense, due to the fact that - at least for me - originating in sounds farther away than the pertaining to of -an.

word-forming element, from Old French -eis (Modern French -ois, -ais), from Vulgar Latin, from Latin -ensem, -ensis "belonging to" or "originating in." (-ese, OED)

word-forming element meaning "pertaining to," from Latin -anus, adjective suffix, in some cases via French -ain, -en. From PIE *-no-. (-an, OED, linked as well in OP)

The ending -i is almost completely limited to countries in the middle east and stretching over Pakistan to Nepal.

However the closer you get to the UK geographically the more the names are all over the place (Dutch, French(men), Spaniard). Still there are patterns, around the Baltic Sea are some -es countrymen (Danes, Swedes, Poles), while the phonetically similar endings of Greek, Turk and Kurd are also geographically clustered.

Within the UK the names end in sh(men) and self-referencing Briton, besides the Scots of course. However you still wanted to murder them a few anthems ago - and with them probably leaving that would become a nice linguistic rule again. If it only wasn't for the Isle of Man inhabitants called Manx, which is definitely a new word I just learned, but it's not a country.


So there seems some distance involved, as well as seafaring epochs (Baltics vs ocean-crossing) and some geographic clusters of names. Either of those has one or two exceptions. Finally the names in the list are not the exclusively used names for citizens of those countries. (Thank you landlocked Nepalese.)

  • Thank you very much for a forensic examination. The one thing I might be able to add is that the Manx do have a unique traditional language (also 'Manx') so that might tie in there. However, it's English, so I wouldn't have believed had there not been exceptions! – BladorthinTheGrey Aug 14 '16 at 9:45
  • "The Isle of Man is not a country." Rather depends on the definition. It's not a sovereign state, but it's not part of the United Kingdom and not a member of the European Union (although it is within the Customs union); it's a self-governing Crown dependency. Arguably it's more of a "country" than Scotland is. – Andrew Leach Nov 6 '16 at 12:32

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