Interesting grammar: words that mean ‘not us’

I am a proofreader, and there’s no getting away from the fact that I find language really interesting. So today I’d like to indulge myself in a little contemplation of a linguistic phenomenon that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

We all know plenty of words that indicate someone is part of a group. Words for religious members (eg: Christian, Muslim) and nationalities (eg: British, French) are the most obvious. But what about words that indicate someone is not part of a group?

Here are the words I’ve collected – they all tell us some pretty interesting things about the idea of ‘not us’:

  • Emmet: I’m from Cornwall and this word is one of ours (‘ours’ – even I’m doing it!). It means ‘tourist’, ‘holidaymaker’, or in general ‘not Cornish’. That’s pretty specific, a word meaning everybody from everywhere in the world that isn’t Cornwall.
  • Gentile: The OED defines this as, ‘among Jews: a person not belonging to the Jewish faith’. It’s interesting that quite a few ‘not us’ words centre around religion, probably because this has been a very divisive subject for a very long time.
  • Infidel: Now this one is really interesting, because it can mean different things to different groups. The definition is, ‘an adherent of a religion other than one’s own’, meaning that a Christian could use it to refer to Muslims/Jews/Sikhs/Hindus, and any of those groups could use it to refer to Christians, or each other. It’s a ‘not us’ word that anyone can use.
  • Muggle: Yes, JK Rowling’s creation has made it into the OED. The official definition is, ‘a person not conversant with a particular skill’, but in Rowling’s books it meant, ‘someone without magical powers’. It’s spin-off, ‘Mudblood’ (meaning ‘Muggle-born’), was also pretty offensive to Rowling’s witches and wizards, and I wonder if all of these ‘not us’ words have a negative connotation. Do they not only say, ‘you do not belong to us’, but also, ‘you are worse than us’?

I’d be fascinated to know whether there is a name for these ‘not us’ words (if there is, I expect it is long and Latin). I think they are a fascinating reflection of our apparent need to divide ourselves up into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

I’ll finish off with another interesting word: shibboleth.

This is a Hebrew word that was ‘used as a test to detect people from another district or county by their pronunciation’. According to an account in the Hebrew Bible, this word (which can mean both ‘ear of corn’ and ‘torrent’) was used to distinguish Ephraimites from Gileadites, because the Ephraimites could not pronounce the ‘sh’ sound. After a battle, the victorious Gileadites told each of the refugees to say ‘shibboleth’, and those who pronounced it ‘sibboleth’ were killed.

The concept of ‘not us’ isn’t just restricted to labels, then. It can even come down to a matter of pronunciation.

If anybody know what these ‘not us’ words are officially called, do let me know.

And if you’re after a proofreader who’s a little obsessed with language, contact me!

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