a. Of, relating to, or characteristic of a group of people sharing a common cultural or national heritage and often sharing a common language or religion.
b. Being a member of a particular ethnic group, especially belonging to a national group by heritage or culture but residing outside its national boundaries: ethnic Hungarians living in northern Serbia.
c. Of, relating to, or distinctive of members of such a group: ethnic restaurants; ethnic art.
2. Archaic Relating to a people not Christian or Jewish.
A member of a particular ethnic group, especially one who maintains the language or customs of the group.
[Middle English, heathen, from Late Latin ethnicus, from Greek ethnikos, from ethnos, people, nation; see s(w)e- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Word History: When it is said in a Middle English text written before 1400 that a part of a temple fell down and "mad a gret distruccione of ethnykis," one wonders which ethnicity was singled out for death. The word ethnic in this context, however, means "gentile," coming as it does from the Greek adjective ethnikos, meaning "national, foreign, gentile." The adjective is derived from the noun ethnos, "people, nation, foreign people," that in the plural phrase ta ethnē meant "foreign nations." In translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, this phrase was used for Hebrew gōyīm, "gentiles"; hence the sense of the noun in the Middle English quotation. The current sense of the word emerged in the 19th century, probably under the influence of other words going back to Greek ethnos, such as ethnography and ethnology.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
The American Heritage Dictionary Blog
Check out our blog, updated regularly, for new words and revised definitions, interesting images from the 5th edition, discussions of usage, and more.
American Heritage Dictionary Products
The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
The American Heritage Roget's Thesaurus
Curious George's Dictionary
The American Heritage Children's Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
The American Heritage Student Grammar Dictionary
The American Heritage Desk Dictionary + Thesaurus
The American Heritage Science Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of Business Terms
The American Heritage Student Dictionary
The American Heritage Essential Student Thesaurus