Which Word Wednesday: Country vs. Nation

By August 29, 2012 language No Comments

Which Word Wednesday is on a reading roll—this is the second entry in a row spurred on by a book I’m reading. I came across this week’s WWW duel while reading You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity by Robert Lane Greene. Here’s the excerpt:

Americans tend to use “nation” as a synonym for “country.” But political scientists and historians, as well as many Europeans, tend to use the term for a much more specific phenomenon: a group of people who feel they belong together, whether they have a country of their own or not. Nations tend to share several things: a sense of common history, a religion, cultural customs, some geographic continuity, and, of course, a language. . . . [T]he two most powerful of all tend to be religion and language. Where people share the same faith and the same speech, they tend to consider themselves a nation.1

Fascinating! I had always used the words interchangeably. So let’s look at the definitions in The Oxford American Dictionary:

country :: noun
a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory

nation :: noun
a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory

hmm. That doesn’t settle it fully for me. But I found this entry in Dave Dowling’s The Wrong Word Dictionary:

“A country is a piece of land or area and the home of certain people. A nation is a body of people associated with a particular area or territory.”2

I’m thinking that country is to be used when referring to the land itself, while nation is to be used when speaking of the people.

What’s my WWW verdict? Once again, the more I read, the more I know what I don’t know.

What’s your verdict? Did you know the difference between country and nation? What have you learned from your most recent read? Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak (New York, NY: Delacorte Press, 2011), 132–133.
2. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 71.

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