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A nation is a community of people who live together in an area (or, more broadly, of their descendants who may now be dispersed); and who regard themselves, or are regarded by others, as sharing some common identity, to which certain norms and behavior are usually attributed. The nationals (born of the "nation" in this sense) are distinguished from the rest by common descent, common language, and/or common institutions. During the 19th century the term nation became unavoidably linked with the ideology of nationalism. See Romantic nationalism.
The term is often used synonymously with ethnos or ethnic group, but the terms aren't exactly the same, because ethnic groups have the same ethnic origin but do not necessarily fall under the same political institutions.
In common usage, terms such as nation, country, land and state often appear as near-synonyms, i.e., for a territory under a single sovereign government, or the inhabitants of such a territory, or the government itself; in other words, a de jure or de facto state.
In a somewhat more strict sense, however, nation (ethnos) denominates a people in contrast to country which denominates a territory, whereas state expresses a legitimised administrative institution. Confusingly, the terms national and international are used as technical terms applying to states, see country.
Origins of the term
Liutprand, bishop of Cremona, when confronting the Byzantine emperor in 968 on behalf of his patron Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, boldly declared in his report, "The Land", I answered, "which you say belongs to your empire belongs, as the nationality and language of the people proves, to the kingdom of Italy." (emphasis added)
The term derives from Latin natio and originally described the colleagues in a college or students, above all at the University of Paris, who were all born within a pays, spoke the same language and expected to be ruled by their own familiar law. In 1383 and 1384, while studying theology at Paris, Jean Gerson was twice elected procurator for the French nation (i.e. the French-born Francophone students at the University). The Paris division of students into nations was adopted at the University of Prague, where from its opening in 1349 the studium generale was divided among Czech, Bavarian, Saxon and Polish nations.
Nation-states and stateless nations
While today many nations appear to co-incide with an independent state (a nation-state), this happenstance occurred comparatively rarely in pre-modern history; the rise of nationalism in the 18th and 19th century saw the idea that each nation deserves its own state gain momentum in Europe. Today too, however, many nations exist without a state, such as the Kurds, Assyrians, Gibraltarian and the native American nations, whereas many states comprise several nations, such as Belgium, United Kingdom and Spain. There are other cases also – until 1922 the Irish nation was wholly within the United Kingdom. Following a move for independence, the country was partitioned into an independent southern state (now the Republic of Ireland), with Northern Ireland remaining in the Union.
The idea of a nation remains somewhat vague, in that there is generally no strict definition for exactly who is considered to be a member of any particular nation. Many modern states show a great diversity of cultural behaviours and ethnic backgrounds. England may furnish a classic example: a territory which is not a state, since it has no government of its own, and which has large immigrant populations and diverse cultural behaviour, yet which is often described as a nation.
The United States offers a distinction between nationality and citizenship in its law that only those born in the United States may qualify as candidates for president. Governments of stable nation-states may address such issues by granting nationality to those who have one or both parents already possessing nationality, or who are born within the country in question. When granting nationality to immigrants, authorities sometimes apply language and cultural knowledge tests, but now often ignore ethnicity in order to avoid racism and/or the accusation thereof.
Groups which are in some way culturally coherent (or who claim to be) are sometimes described as nations, despite not sharing a territory (see diaspora). Examples of such concepts include the Romany "nation (ethnos)" and the Jewish "nation (ethnos)" (especially before the creation of the state of Israel).
On a perceived analogy with the "First Nations" who share an aboriginal culture but may be physically dispersed, groups have expanded the definition of a nation to include a group of people with a common interest, as in the case of Red Sox Nation, the unofficial name given to those who were apparently born to be fans of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, or to the "Queer Nation" of gay empowerment. If the concept of "nation" becomes a vogue word, it is likely to become further blurred.
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