Etymology of the Word “People”
A person is any population of people regarded as a whole consisting of at least the sub-populations defined by some statistician. It includes all people living in a territory irrespective of race, tribe, color, religion, or political affiliation. Thus, it includes the people of a country, state, province, district, or even town. The word, people, can be used and understood in different ways depending on the circumstances. Sometimes people are referred to as a community or a nation and sometimes a set of individuals.
To understand the concept of a people, it helps to take some examples. Consider a classroom in which most of the students are pupils from different countries. These students are considered to be collective “people” because they have the same surname, have the same culture, have the same birth dates, and so on. Similarly, all the members of a government or political party are considered to constitute a “people” because they live under one political system and share the same traits. A town comprised of a large number of inhabited towns is also the “people” because each of these towns has its own identity, history, culture, and so on. These things are collectively known as “forests”.
However, it is difficult to draw a demarcation between the concept of a people and that of an ethnic group. People are by definition a “people”. But ethnicity cannot be considered a people by itself. For example, an ethnic group like “Iranian Americans” can be considered the people by many people yet not by many members of this group. The term “Iranian Americans” itself denotes a set of nationalities rather than an ethnic group. In this way, the concept of a people becomes meaningless.
The origin of the concept of people lies in the Greek language where elision of the last syllable in a word meaning “people” produced the term “non-Greeks” which later became people nouns. Another example of this phenomenon is the English language that has borrowed many words from other languages but has retained the original meaning of the words (e.g., husband, land, etc.). In the case of people nouns, this evolution was apparent in terms of gender. For instance, while it was previously believed that the word “man” in addition to the feminine form “woman” indicated the people of a particular group, this was not the case in either the English or Spanish language.
As it is now, it is generally accepted that the word “people” in the English language refers to the members of a particular social class. There are many examples to this effect. A good example is the word “American”, which, according to Merriam Webster, signifies “a people of one race”. Similarly, “Chinese” and “Japanese” are people of one race although their cultural identities are vastly different. Another example is the word” Canadians” which means “the people of Canada”. The implication being made here is that there is no such thing as a generic people as there is a common person which, collectively, make up a social class that is identified by culture, nationality or descent and which, collectively, constitute a social group or community referred to as a people.
The etymology of the word “people” as revealed by its usage in modern English shows that it originally referred to a group of human beings who lived in ancient times. It is also evident from the use of “people” in association with animal names in the bible, both figuratively and literally, that it had more than an emotional connection with animal companions (Genesis 15:5-6 and 1 Chronicles 7:10-11 and Hebrews 9:3-4 and 1 Kings 6:2-3 respectively). Thus, it can be seen that “people” in the English language did not begin as an adjective but denotes a class of human beings.