Race: four homonyms

In a relaxed moment, the students began to talk about English words that they did not like, or which annoyed them. One girl put forward the noun race. “It’s a silly word,” she said. “It means two completely different things. And even within one of its meanings, it’s confusing. You hear people talk about ‘the human race’, and shortly afterwards they are talking about discriminating ‘on the grounds of race’. To me it’s an unthinking word, and I don’t think it’s fit to be in the English language. Can’t we help to get rid of it?”

Interesting: because it does seem to be one of those accidents of language that bring no benefit and even threaten precision of thought. The student mentioned two completely different things: in fact there are four different things, with no etymological connection, acknowledged by Chambers as in modern use. (The OED gives four more that are rare, regional or obsolete.)

1   race, n. A Norse word, first recorded c.1330. Meanings include:
Onset, charge; act of running; haste; progress; journey; channel, course, passageway; racecourse; rapid current in sea or river; a contest of speed, or figuratively any contest. (There are also a number of technical uses in engineering, etc.)

2   race, n. Borrowed from Middle French raiz, from Latin radix. First recorded c.1450
A root of ginger. (Shakespeare uses this word.)

3   race, n. Origin uncertain. First recorded ?1523.
A mark, usually white, down the face of an animal, esp. a horse.

4  race, n. Borrowed from French. First recorded 1547. French is from the Italian razza.
A group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin; a group of people descended from a common ancestor; a family; an ethnic group; any of the major groupings of mankind; any class, kind or species of living things;­­­ the class of human beings; mankind.

Shakespeare uses the fourth one in several of its senses. For him it was a relatively new word in English: did he pronounce it as the French, rass, or was the spelling pronunciation already in use? This is the word that the student was particularly objecting to.

It might be thought that serial introductions of this sort go to make an area where English is not at its best. But perhaps we are lucky: such multiple homonyms are the norm in the Chinese languages, where the meaning is defined by intonation. They are homonyms but not homophones.

There remains the question of where the Italian razza comes from. Philologists cannot agree on this, but some think it is from the Latin ratio.