What’s the deal with demonyms?

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A demonym is the word used to describe people coming from a certain place. For example, to describe someone from Europe, the demonym “European” is used. For America, it is “American”. Australia is “Australian” and so on.

From these first three extremely common examples, it would seem that a demonym is simply tacking on the letters “an” or “ian” to the end of a word. But this is not the case.

Some countries have “an”,or “ian”. But there’s also “ite”, “er”, “ish” and “ese”, plus many more.

I always wondered what the rule is, as the usage seems to be all over the place.

I had initially thought perhaps the demonym “-ese” was used for Asian countries, such as Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or Taiwanese, but you’ve also got Korean, Indian, Indonesian and Singaporean. If “-ese” was for Asia, then by that logic Asia itself should be Asese as well.

So what’s the deal?

“-Ese” isn’t unique to Asia – you’ve got Portuguese, and also Milanese and Genoese for some cities in Italy (Milan and Genoa respectively).

It seems the words for Chinese, Japanese etc. come from Italian and Portuguese explorers naming these people, as they were the first Europeans to do so. In Italian the use of “-ese” is a lot more common, as Canadian becomes Canadese, French becomes Francese, Dutch becomes Olandese (from “Holland”). The use of “-ese” for some places in English is an example of the mix of languages over time.

Because of this there does not seem to be any uniformly consistent rule with words used to describe people that come from certain places. It all appears to be a matter of what was the language used to originally describe it, or what is used in common practice.

Some of the more interesting examples are Glasgow and Norway becoming Glaswegian and Norwegian, Slovenia becoming Slovene (not Slovenian) and Cyprus becoming Cypriot. New South Wales becomes, hilariously, New South Welshman.

There are even some areas that still use the ancient Latin words as the basis for the demonym. Cambridge becomes Cantabrigian, Manchester becomes Mancunian, Naples becomes Neapolitan and, perhaps my favourite, Newcastle becomes Novocastrian (from the Roman name Novum Castrum).

Given all this, I wonder what the word should be to describe someone from Earth. Perhaps in the distant future when people live on the moon or other planets this might become necessary.

Science fiction tends to use the word “Earthling” a lot – especially when used by aliens to describe humans. I’m not a fan of that word though.

Looking through examples on the Wikipedia page for demonym, I can see that for places ending with “th”, there is unsurprisingly no consistent rule. Corinth becomes Corinthian, Perth is Perthite, Bath is Bathonian.

Earthian, Earthite or Earthonian do not sound very good either. Considering there seems to be no rule, I like the word ‘Earther”. Or “Terran”, if we use the Latin word for Earth.

Let me know what you think the demonym for Earth should be!


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