I’m trying to sort out the full meaning of the word nation, specifically the degree to which it means a place versus a group of people.

The question and answers here are specific but divided. User waiwai933 reports that nation is the people (“identical to State [a group of people where at least one person has power and authority]; alternatively, a group of people identified by one culture (less common).”). User kiamlaluno quotes the NOAD that a nation is “people … inhabiting a particular country or territory.” Finally, user T.E.D. quotes Wikipedia saying that “The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity.”

So already there is disagreement. Various dictionaries I’ve consulted seem divided on the matter. If I write that a small child “fills his tiny nation” will it be read as “he fills his territory” or “he fills his ethno/cultural group”? Or could it be read either way?

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    In my humble opinion, it (solely) depends on the context. "Nation" may be assumed as having either of both meanings. I don't think there is a kind of rule to be followed in this case. – Ivan Machado May 4 '12 at 21:40
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    If you write that a small child fills his tiny nation it probably doesn't make any difference, since small children live in worlds of their own, where these territorial / ethnosociological distinctions simply don't exist. – FumbleFingers May 4 '12 at 22:12
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    If you're seeking advice on how use nation as a creative metaphor for a child's imagination, you might want to consider migrating this question over to writers.stackexchange.com – Jed Oliver May 4 '12 at 23:10

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Definition of NATION

(1) : nationality (2) : a politically organized nationality (3) : a non-Jewish nationality b : a community of people composed of one or more nationalities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government c : a territorial division containing a body of people of one or more nationalities and usually characterized by relatively large size and independent status 2 archaic : group, aggregation 3 : a tribe or federation of tribes (as of American Indians)

Examples of NATION

It's one of the richest nations in the world. The largest state in the nation. The President will speak to the nation tonight. The entire nation is celebrating the victory.

This is what happens when you crowdsource and no one cites the dictionary. As you can see, it refers to both. All four of the examples are could be applied to the United States as a "Nation". I never hear it used except in reference to a geographical area, a territory or a country.

As for the example sentence, Nation should only be used to refer to large geographical areas or large groups of people, not something a small child with a limited political reach would be in control of. As J.R. suggests, f you are using it as hyperbole, the word makes sense. As Ted below suggests, if you'd like help with the metaphor for whatever the child is filling up, you could ask on writers.stackexchange.com

Hope this helps!

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    Overall, I like this answer, but I believe there could be a place for "A child fills his tiny nation." I would interpret such a sentence to be using very deliberate hyperbole on the word nation, meant to accentuate the naïve, limited, yet almost boundlessly imaginative world of a child. Rare, but acceptable in the right context. As for day-to-day use, however, I'm inclined toward your position. – J.R. May 4 '12 at 23:11
  • @J.R. I think you might be better off using the phrase "A child fills his tiny world" instead. But if you want better suggestions on metaphor, I would consider asking this question in writers.stackexchange.com instead. – Jed Oliver May 4 '12 at 23:16
  • @J.R. As hyperbole it fits, absolutely. – user20276 May 4 '12 at 23:19
  • @JedOliver True, I'll add that to the answer. – user20276 May 4 '12 at 23:19
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    Thanks @Nathan for the answer. Re: crowdsourcing link, any one of us could look up any number of dictionary definitions all the time. I’m actually more interested in the way the word is used and understood. In general I found the dictionary definitions to be contradictory and unenlightening. Your answer, the comments and all the other answers are exactly the kind of discussion that I appreciate on this site. – JAM May 5 '12 at 2:06

As with many words, neither of the senses you mentioned is more correct that the other. If you are concerned about the ambiguity of "nation," perhaps you could find a different term that more clearly expresses your intent. However, a certain amount of ambiguity in your writing is completely natural and shouldn't harm your message. Based on just the phrase you provided, either interpretation seems perfectly acceptable to me.

If you're more interested in technicalities, the OED's earliest citation for the geographical sense is dated c1330, while the ethnic sense is dated 1549. Citations often have very little connection to actual dates of usage, so take that as you will.

Finally, in case you are interested in the OED has to say on the subject, it does include this usage note:

The term is rarely used to refer to a state in its physical or geographical aspect.

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    Counterexample: The Navajo Nation is a large, semi-autonomous “state” centered at the Four Corners area in the American Southwest, with clearly delineated geographical boundaries. Like any other state, it has its own government, courts, police, and taxes (and time zone). But it is also very much a geographic area. – tchrist May 4 '12 at 22:44
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    Your assertion that The term is rarely used to refer to a state in its physical or geographical aspect may be true in England, as OED focuses mainly on UK variations of speech, but in the US it's far more common to use Nation to refer to a geographical area. "This great nation," "We are a nation of many peoples." See my answer below. – user20276 May 4 '12 at 23:00
  • @tchrist, that is considered an archaic use of the word, but you're right that meaning also implies a geographical area. – user20276 May 4 '12 at 23:01

That question is about Nation as compared to State.

If you are just asking about the word on its own, what exactly it means depends on context. Sadly for us Engineers, "meaning" in spoken languages is kind of a fuzzy concept.

For example, the USA can certianly be considered a Nation. However, the Cherokee tribe is also considered a Nation, even though pretty much every member is also a citizen of the USA. Athletic team fans have been known to consider themselves a Nation. In the specific cases I linked, there are a large number of people who consider themselves members of all three "nations".

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