TRIVIAL PURSUITS: From Where Did the Term ‘Caucasian’ Come?

Though it has fallen out of favor and used less (and rightly so), the word “Caucasian” as a descriptor for white people can still be found in some places.

The word “Caucasian” has “long since been abandoned as a historical/anthropological term,” according to the Oxford English dictionary. However, a 2013 New York Times article discusses ways it has been repurposed.

From where did the word come? It means “of or pertaining to the Caucasus Mountains.” In 1795, the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in his pioneering treatise on anthropology distinguished mankind into five races.

For Caucasians, he included nearly all Europeans (except Lapps and Finns), Armenians, Persians, and Hindus, as well as Arabs and Jews. His attempt at division was based on physical similarities in skulls. He chose the word to describe white people because the Caucasus was home to “the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgians,” and because among his collection of 245 human skulls, the Georgian one was his favorite, wrote Nell Irvin Painter in her book “The History of White People.” Ranges of the Caucasus Mountains are in the country of Georgia.

From the Latin “Caucasus” and from the Greek “kaukasis,” Gaius Plinius Secundus, called Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who wrote the encyclopedic Naturalis Historia, said “Caucasus” is from a Scythian word similar to kroy-khasis, literally “(the mountain) ice-shining, white with snow.”

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