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Definitions, Nouns, and Politics

Definitions, Nouns, and Politics
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The United States will hold a presidential election in November of 2020. From now until then, you are likely to hear or read many reports about the things U.S. politicians say. Sometimes, the reports or politicians’ statements will have words that carry a somewhat different meaning than what you might think.

One example is minority.** It is a noun, but sometimes people use it like an adjective, as in the term minority groups.

This seemingly simple word will be the subject of our report today.

History and change over time

The word minority has a long history. The Google Ngrams search engine shows it first appeared in the English language somewhere around the year 1510.

Google N-Gram showing use of Minority from 1500 - 2008
Google N-Gram showing use of Minority from 1500 - 2008

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that minority comes from the Middle French word minorité. By the 1530s, the English term meant “state or condition of being smaller.” But it does not really carry that meaning anymore.

Minority slowly took on new meanings during the 1700s.

By the 19th century, minority generally had two meanings. Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 notes one was: “the state of being under age.” The other was “the smaller number; as the minority of the senate or house of representatives; opposed to majority.”

By the beginning of the 21st century, minority had taken on more meanings. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 4th edition, for example, lists four main meanings.

One of them is a “racial, religious, ethnic, or political group smaller than and differing from the larger, controlling group in a community, nation, etc.

But such definitions do not always line up with how Americans use terms, as we will see.

Change in meaning

John McWhorter is an American expert on language. In his book, Words on the Move, McWhorter writes that Americans often think of specific groups of people when using the term ‘minority.’ “In the minds of American English speakers… minorities are considered to be black and Latino people,” he adds.

A report on the television program “CBS This Morning” provides an example of what McWhorter is talking about. The title of this 2016 video is “Clinton and Sanders fight for minority votes in Milwaukee debate.”

Let us listen to some of the report. Notice that it takes note of only one kind of minority in the United States.

“The debate was in Wisconsin, but the candidates were clearly focused on the next primary, in South Carolina, where African-Americans could decide the outcome.”

In his book, McWhorter noted that the term “minority feels forced when applied to other groups, even when they, too, constitute numerical minorities of the population.”

In other words, the term minority often carries a much more narrow meaning than what the recent dictionary definition might suggest.

But here is an important point to consider: minority carries this narrower meaning when Americans are talking about local or national issues. They might mean something closer to the dictionary definition when talking about groups of people outside the United States.

Here is an example. Imagine two statements by an American political candidate. The first statement is about U.S. college admissions.

The politician might say:

“I believe we need to do all we can to encourage minorities to apply to colleges.”

In this statement, our make-believe politician is probably using minority in the way that McWhorter wrote about.

The politician is probably not talking about Americans of Asian ancestry, although they do make up about five or six percent of the U.S. population. The politician is also probably not referring to other kinds of minority groups in the country – Jewish people, for example.

Now, imagine our politician is making a point about U.S. foreign policy. The politician might say:

“I believe America should send aid to the Kurds and other minorities in the Middle East.”

In this case, the politician would be referring to a broader, more extensive idea of what minority means. In other words, small groups that do not make up the majority – whether that be along religious, racial or other lines.

Closing thoughts

Today, we took you on a journey of one word, from its birth in English to its modern usage in American politics and the news.

We showed you that a commonly heard noun can carry slightly different meanings, and that its meanings have grown and changed over time.

The next time you are reading or watching a story about American politics, ask yourself about the language that the speaker uses. Are there some terms – nouns, verbs, or adjectives – he or she uses often?

Do you think the speaker might be using the term in a way that matches what you see in the dictionary? If not, what might explain the difference?

Asking yourself these kinds of questions will improve your understanding of American English, as well as American politics and culture.

And that’s Everyday Grammar.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

And I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

**There are two main pronunciations of minority. They are: maɪˈnɔːrəti and məˈnorəti


Words in This Story

etymology – n. an explanation of where a word came from; the history of a word

dictionary – n. a book or reference guide listing the words or terms of one language and their meanings

focus – v. to direct your attention or effort at something

constitute – v. to make up or form something

encourage – v. to make (something) more appealing or more likely to happen

journey – n. a trip; travel from one place to another

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