August 19, 2005

Minorities as legal minors?

Yesterday the AP wire ran a story by Erin Texeira with the lede

What do you call a minority that is becoming the majority? News that Texas is the fourth state in which non-Hispanic whites make up less than 50 percent of residents has renewed discussion about whether the term 'minority' has outlived its usefulness; critics include both liberals and conservatives.

Texeira quotes Roderick J. Harrison, identified as "a demographer with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies", as presenting a bit of etymology that suprised me:

"The word's origins are that these are populations that once had the status of minors before the law," Harrison said.

It's certainly true that minority can mean "The period of a person's life prior to attaining full age", and that this usage is very old. with OED citations back to 1493.

However, the OED sets up a separate sense for

3. a. A group or subdivision whose views or actions distinguish it from the main body of people; (originally spec.) a party voting together against a majority in a deliberative assembly or electoral body.

with citations from 1716:

1716 J. ADDISON Freeholder No. 9 p.11 The Parliament of Great Britain, against whom you bring a stale accusation which has been used by every minority in the memory of man.
1736 R. AINSWORTH Thes. Linguæ Latinæ, Minority (lesser number).
1765 L. STERNE Life Tristram Shandy VIII. xix. 66 To prevent your honours of the Majority and Minority from tearing the very flesh off your bones in contestation.
1790 E. BURKE Refl. Revol. in France (ed. 2) 186 In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority.

These uses don't seem to derived the legal term minor (which is attested from 1552), but instead seem to be transparently related to the ordinary word minor meaning "lesser" or "relatively small" (attested from 1230 or so), as applied to the counting of heads in a political contest.

The OED then treats the sense

3.b. A small group of people differing from the rest of the community in ethnic origin, religion, language, etc.; (now sometimes more generally) any identifiable subgroup within a society, esp. one perceived as suffering from discrimination or from relative lack of status or power.

as an extension of this "political minority" sense, with citations from 1837:

1837 U. S. Mag. & Democratic Rev. Oct. 3 Though we go for the republican principle of the supremacy of the will of the majority, we acknowledge, in general, a strong sympathy with minorities, and consider that their rights have a high moral claim on the respect and justice of majorities.
1855 N. Amer. Rev. Jan. 171 The nucleus afforded by a vast and unappropriated country for the establishment and growth of political and religious minorities transplanted from ancient states and hierarchies.
1888 S. MOORE tr. Marx & Engels Manifesto Communist Party i. 11 All previous movements were movements of minorities or in the interests of minorities.
1917 Times 28 Dec. 8/1 According to the declarations of..the quadruple alliance, protection of the right of minorities forms an essential component part of the constitutional right of peoples to self-determination.

The point of Texeira's article is that the term minority is being overtaken by demographic events. Harrison's argument (if he was quoted corrected, which is always a gamble) seems to be that it's appropriate to go on using the term, even if the groups so named become collectively the numerical majority, because it referred originally not to demographic statistics, but to the legal status of being a child before the law. But none of these groups have such a legal status today, so why would this etymology be relevant, even if it were true?

It's common enough for the literal sense of a word to evaporate in favor of what started as connotation. If that's happening to minority, so be it -- we can go on using it, if we want to, without making up factually and logically dubious excuses.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 19, 2005 08:43 PM