This past Sunday, talk show pundits analyzed the latest developments on the 2016 presidential race. Yesterday, runners braved the rain–and memories–to race in the Boston Marathon. Where does this word race come running from?

Wrong way! "Error." Doodle by @andrescalo.
You’re running the wrong way! “Error.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The word race has a lot of legs–and many different meanings over the centuries. In reference to the “act of running,” the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the word back to the early 1300s with a sense of a “rush” or “raid.” From here, the word sprinted to signify all sorts of forward progress and movement. The sporting race is first in record by the early 1500s, generalized and extended in meaning over the century. According to the OED, the political race comes later, cited in–and a shout-out to my hometown here–the title of a Cincinnati Literary Gazette tale from 1824: “The Lovers’ Political Race, or a Kentucky Election.” (“A Kentucky election”: That certainly sounds like the punchline to a joke Cincinnatians might say about their neighbors across the river.) You can read the piece here. Like any proper political tale, it’s full of romance, backwoodsmen, electioneering, and whiskey that flows like water.

Which brings us nicely to the origin of race. Etymologists suspect race was adopted from the Scandinavian languages. Old Norse has rāsa “running” or “rush” of water, which English’s own race has signified. Old English has a close cognate, rǣs, a “running” but also an “attack.” These similar sounds and senses likely influenced each other in race‘s early development. Scholars reconstruct them in Proto-Germanic *res-, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *ers-, “to be in motion” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots).


A race conjures a concerted speed and effort on a a determined path. (Yes, egg-and-spoon races can get serious.) This is quite unlike its Latin cousin (also descended from *ers-): errāre, “to wander,” “stray,” or “be mistaken about.” Not all forms of motion, I suppose, are onward, forward, and purposeful: Errāre relays errerrorerroneouserratic, and aberration into English. (The French-based errant and arrant may not ultimately come from this Latin verb, but it certainly influenced them when these words were confused with a derivative of the Latin īre, “to go.”) This notion of straying also has feet in other Germanic words but is associated with “anger,” an emotional aberration from the social norm, if you will.

Anger, running, error, attack? It sounds like were talking about a different kind of race too tragically making headlines lately. That race has a different—and largely unknown—origin.

m ∫ r ∫

One thought on “race

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s