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A nation can refer to a sovereign state,[1] as for instance in the member states of the United Nations,[2] or to a community of people who share a common language, descent, history, and, although not necessarily, a common government.[1] In the United States, the word is also used to refer to a tribe of North American Indians, such as the Cherokee Nation.[1]


Nation is derived from natio (Latin: to be born) (nātĭō, stem nātiōn-) and is related to gnasci (Old Latin; see genus).[3] Nation stands in contrast to the obligations of citizenship suggested by the civitas.[3]

The English word "nation" comes from the French word "nation":[4][5]

  • The action of being born; birth; or and
  • The goddess personifying birth; or
  • A breed (like a dog), stock, kind, species, race; or
  • A tribe, or (rhetorically, any) set of people (contemptuous); or
  • A nation or people.

As an example of how the word natio was employed in classical Latin, the following quote from Cicero's Philippics Against Mark Antony in 44 BC contrasts the external, inferior nationes ("races of people") with the Roman civitas ("community").:

"Omnes nationes servitutem ferre possunt: nostra civitas non potest."

("All races are able to bear enslavement, but our community cannot.")[6]

St. Jerome used this "genealogical-historical term ... in his Latin translation of the New Testament to denote non-Christians — that is, 'others'."[7] An early example of the use of the word "nation" (in conjunction with language and territory) was provided in 968 by Liutprand (the bishop of Cremona) who, while confronting Nicephorus II (the Byzantine emperor) on behalf of his patron Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, declared:

"The land...which you say belongs to your empire belongs, as the nationality and language of the people proves, to the kingdom of Italy.'" (Emphasis added.)[8]

Although Liutprand was writing in Latin, his native tongue was Lombardic (a Germanic language).

A significant early use of the term nation, as natio, was at mediaeval universities (see: nation (university)), to describe the colleagues in a college or students, above all at the University of Paris, who were all born within a pays, spoke the same language and expected to be ruled by their own familiar law. In 1383 and 1384, while studying theology at Paris, Jean Gerson was twice elected procurator for the French natio (i.e. the French-born Francophone students at the University). The division of students into a natio was also adopted at the University of Prague, where from its opening in 1349 the studium generale was divided among Bohemian, Bavarian, Saxon and Polish nations.

In a similar way, the nationes were segregated as sojourners among the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, who maintained at Rhodes the hostels from which they took their name, "where foreigners eat and have their places of meeting, each nation apart from the others, and a Knight has charge of each one of these hostels, and provides for the necessities of the inmates according to their religion," as the Spanish traveller Pedro Tafur noted in 1436.[9]

Nations without a sovereign state

Nations that are a community of people sharing a common territory and government but are not sovereign states can be controversial subjects due, in no small part, to national security concerns of neighbouring countries. A notable example of a people who consider themselves to be a nation are those of the State of Palestine, which has territories generally delineated. Palestinian nationalism in modern times arose between 1948 and 1950. Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 spoke of "the Palestinian nation" in the context of Jerusalem and Palestine.[10] The State of Palestine is today widely recognized by sovereign states, although often in equivocal terms.[11] Still, op‑ed pieces in Israeli media question the existence of a Palestinian nation,[12] partly due to its very short history.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 World Book Dictionary defines nation as “the people occupying the same country, united under the same government, and usually speaking the same language”. Another definition is that nation is a “sovereign state.” It also says nation can refer to “a people, race, or tribe; those having the same descent, language, and history.” World Book Dictionary also gives this definition: “a tribe of North American Indians.” Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary defines nation as “a community of people composed of one or more nationalities with its own territory and government” and also as “a tribe or federation of tribes (as of American Indians)”.
  2. United Nations: UN at a Glance
  3. 3.0 3.1
  4. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, (1879). A Latin Dictionary. Entry for natio. Online at
  5. Harper, Douglas (November 2001). "Nation". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2007-11-08. .
  6. M. Tullius Cicero, Orationes: Pro Milone, Pro Marcello, Pro Ligario, Pro rege Deiotaro, Philippicae I-XIV (ed. Albert Clark, Oxford 1918.) Online at
  7. Amos Elon: The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 (Metropolitan Books, 2002) p.23. ISBN 0-8050-5964-4
  8. Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana ad Nicephorum Phocam. Online translation at
  9. Pedro Tafur, Andanças e viajes.
  10. The New York Times: "Text of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Speech"
  11. Crawford, James (1999). "Israel (1948-1949) and Paletine (1998-1999): Two Studies in the Creation of States", in Goodwin-Gil G.S. and S. Talmon, The Reality of International Law: Essays in Honour of Ian Brownlie, Oxford University Press Inc., New York, pp. 110-115
  12. "Was there ever a Palestinian 'nation'?"
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