Why Are White People Called Caucasian?

FreeWorldMaps.net
FreeWorldMaps.net

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.

Guess the Places These Foods Were Named After

The Surprising Origins Behind 9 Modern Slang Expressions

Rihanna attending a 2018 movie premiere with eyebrows on fleek
Rihanna attending a 2018 movie premiere with eyebrows on fleek
ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

Slang evolves so quickly these days—especially on social media—that it can be hard to recall how we first learned a term, much less where it actually came from. This list will help you figure out whether you should be thanking Erykah Badu, LL Cool J, or an academic journal for some of the expressions you love to throw around in conversation and online.

  1. FOMO

A marketing strategist named Dan Herman claims to have identified the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) phenomenon and published the first academic paper about it in The Journal Of Brand Management in 2000. Yet the credit for the popular usage of FOMO often goes to venture capitalist and author Patrick J. McGinnis, who used the term in 2004 in an op-ed for Harvard Business School’s magazine The Harbus to describe the frenetic social lives of his grad school cohort. (One acronym from the op-ed that McGinnis deserves complete credit for: FOBO—Fear of a Better Option.)

  1. Bye, Felisha!

A diss by any other name might still sting as sweet, but there's something satisfying about ending a conversation with "Bye, Felisha!" (Though it’s often mistakenly written as Felicia.) The phrase comes from the 1995 stoner comedy Friday, co-written by and starring Ice Cube as Craig, a young man in South Central Los Angeles just trying to get to the weekend. When the mooching bit character Felisha (played by Angela Means Kaaya) asks Craig’s friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) if she can borrow his car and then a joint, Craig mutters "Bye, Felisha." And now everyone says it, though usually as an exclamation.

  1. Lit

In the last few years, lit has been literally everywhere—in popular music, speech, memes, and a series of articles about what it actually means. People have been using the word to mean “intoxicated” since at least 1918, when John McGavock Grider, an American pilot who served in England's Royal Flying Corps during World War I, used it in his book War Birds: Diary Of An Unknown Aviator. In recent years, however, hip hop has brought the word back to describe a general excitement that can be achieved with or without substances.

  1. Woke

Neo-soul singer Erykah Badu has been credited with bringing woke into popular usage with the 2008 song “Master Teacher,” which was a collaboration with the musician Georgia Anne Muldrow. But using the word to mean “aware in a political or cultural sense” dates back to 1962, when novelist William Melvin Kelley tackled appropriation of black culture in a New York Times article entitled “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” The Oxford English Dictionary finally “woke” up (sorry) and included this timely definition of the word in 2017.

  1. Humblebrag

Humankind has probably been humblebragging since that one Neanderthal complained about how bloated he felt after eating too many woolly mammoths over the weekend. Credit for the term, however, goes to Harris Wittels, the late comedian and writer best known for Parks and Recreation. He coined humblebrag in 2010, explaining the concept through retweeted examples from celebrities on the @Humblebrag Twitter account before publishing Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty in 2012.

  1. On Fleek

This phrase was first used in 2014 by a Vine user named Peaches Monroee to describe perfectly groomed eyebrows. But fleek is defined in the annals of Urban Dictionary as early as 2003 as “smooth, nice, sweet” and 2009 as “awesome.” It quickly evolved to encompass anything that’s flawlessly on point, until adults started awkwardly using it and younger, hipper English speakers moved on to the next vernacular phrase we’re probably not cool enough to have heard yet.

  1. First World Problem

A cousin of humblebrag, this phrase is a helpful reminder to count our blessings and stop complaining about trivial setbacks, like a delayed flight or, if you're really fortunate, slow Wi-Fi on the yacht. It may feel like a relatively new addition to the vernacular, but the phrase "First world problem" has been around since 1979, when an academic named Geoffrey K. Payne used it in an article in the journal Built Environment (although Payne was talking about legitimate First World Problems, notably housing). The more ironic usage developed in the 1990s, perhaps helped along by the Matthew Good Band song "Omissions of the Omen," which included the term in the lyrics. But it didn't go mainstream until it became a self-deprecating internet meme around 2005.

  1. Yas/Yass/Yaass

Everyone’s favorite new affirmative was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2017 and defined as “expressing great pleasure or excitement.” Many first heard it on Broad City, which debuted in 2014. But according to "Reply All," we owe its current popular American usage to the LGBTQ black and Latino ball scene of the 1980s, where attendees hollered “Yas!” at the sight of fiercely strutting drag queens. Ball culture was fertile linguistic ground, by the way: The subculture also gave us voguing (which inspired Madonna), fierce, throwing shade, and more. Call it the Kween’s English.

  1. G.O.A.T.

James Todd Smith, better known as the rapper LL Cool J, clearly loves wordplay: The letters in his stage name stand for Ladies Love Cool James. So it’s no surprise that he brought the acronym G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time, pronounced like the name of the animal) into popular usage with the 2000 hip hop album of the same name. But many trace the use of G.O.A.T as an initialism to boxer and fellow wordsmith Muhammad Ali, who frequently referred to himself as "the greatest" and occasionally "the greatest of all time." In 1992, Ali’s wife Lonnie even incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties.

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