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Why Are White People Called Caucasian?

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In response to assumptions that the Boston bombing suspects were of Arab or Middle Eastern descent (and the use of a lot of rude terms for people from that part of the world), brilliant Twitter account @YesYoureRacist pointed out that the suspects were the textbook definition of white guys:

So these guys, from the Caucasus, are Caucasian. Me, with my mixed Slavic and Baltic heritage, I’m also Caucasian. So are my friends whose families come from Italy, Ireland, Germany, and pretty much anywhere else in Europe. How did all these different white ethnic groups get lumped into “Caucasian?”

It goes back to German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach. In his work in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Blumenbach divided Homo sapiens into five distinct races based on their physical characteristics. There was the Mongolian, or “yellow,” race, the red American race, the brown Malayan race, the black Ethiopian race, and the white Caucasian race.

While he looked at a lot of physical traits to carve out his categories, Blumenbach thought characteristics of the skull—the size and angle of the forehead, jawbone, teeth, eye sockets, etc.—were especially important. He thought that the skulls of Georgians were exemplary of the characteristics of his white race and named the group after the Caucasus Mountain Range that runs along Georgia’s northern border.

All this makes Blumenbach sound like a forerunner of phrenology, and “scientific” attempts to justify discrimination, but while he categorized the races, Blumenbach didn’t put them in a hierarchy and protested any attempts to misuse his groupings to divide people or paint one group as inferior to another. “Blumenbach wrote forcefully of the kindredness of the human races…he opposed the stress on racial hierarchies of worth by more conservative colleagues in his own university and elsewhere in Europe,” historian Nell Irvin Painter writes. “Throughout his work, and especially in the definitive 1795 edition of De generis humani varietate nativa (On the Natural Variety of Mankind), Blumenbach rejected racial hierarchy and emphasized the unity of mankind.”

Blumenbach’s Caucasians weren’t even strictly white or European, as the term is commonly used today. He described this “variety” as “Colour white, cheeks rosy; hair brown or chestnut-colored; head subglobular; face oval, straight, its parts moderately defined, forehead smooth, nose narrow, slightly hooked, mouth small…To this first variety belong the inhabitants of Europe (except the Lapps and the remaining descendants of the Finns) and those of Eastern Asia, as far as the river Obi, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges; and lastly, those of Northern Africa.”

The synonymity of Caucasian and white, and the use of racial lines as discriminatory tools, came later and from other men. Painter specifically calls out “Dutch anatomist, Petrus Camper, whose ‘facial angles’ proves so useful to scientific racists' so-called ‘Great Chain of Being’,” and his “racist elaborators (like Edward Tyson, Josiah Nott, G. R. Gliddon, and even Johann Caspar Lavater) [who] placed Negroes and Kalmucks as close to apes as to Europeans.”

Today “Caucasian” lacks any real scientific meaning (though its cousin “Caucasoid” is still used in some disciplines), but hangs on in common usage as a blanket term for white/European people.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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