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An ethnonym (from the , ├ęthnos, "nation" and , ├│noma, "name") is the name applied to a given ethnic group. Ethnonyms can be divided into two categories: exonyms (where the name of the ethnic group has been created by another group of people) and autonyms or endonyms (where the name is created and used by the ethnic group itself).

As an example, the ethnonym for the ethnically dominant group in Germanymarker is the Germans. This ethnonym is an exonym used by the English-speaking world, although the term itself is derived from Latin. Conversely, Germans themselves use the autonym of die Deutschen.


Numerous ethnonyms can apply to the same ethnic or racial group, with various levels of recognition, acceptance and use. The State Library of South Australia contemplated this issue when considering Library of Congressmarker Headings for literature pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some 20 different ethnonyms were considered as potential Library of Congress headings, but it was recommended that only a fraction of them be employed for the purposes of cataloguing.

Change over time

Ethnonyms can take on a political aspect over time, when they evolve from socially acceptable terms to socially unacceptable terms. For instance, the term Gypsy has been used to refer to the Roma. Other examples include Vandal, Bushman, Barbarian, Eskimo and Philistine.

The ethnonyms applied to African Americans have demonstrated a greater evolution; older terms such as colored carried negative connotations and have been replaced by modern-day equivalents such as black or African-American. Other ethnonyms such as negro have a different status. The term was considered acceptable in its use by activists such as Martin Luther King in the 1960s, but other activists took a different perspective. In discussing an address in 1960 by Elijah Muhammad, it was stated "to the Muslims, terms like Negro and colored are labels created by white people to negate the past greatness of the black race".

Four decades later, a similar difference of opinion remains. In 2006, one commentator suggested that the term is outdated or offensive in many quarters, although its use remains in organisations such as the United Negro College Fund; similarly, the word "colored" still appears in the name of the NAACP, or National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In this context, an ethnonym has the potential to mimic the phenomenon of the euphemism treadmill.


In English, ethnonyms are generally formulated through suffixation; by applying an -n to people of Austria, their nationality is known as Austrian. In English, in many cases, the word for the dominant language of a group is identical to their English-language ethnonym; the French speak French, the Germans speak German. This is sometimes erroneously overgeneralized; a child may assume that people from Indiamarker speak "Indian", despite there being no such language which is called by that name.


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