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Ar·y·an (ârē-ən, ăr-)
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n.
1. Indo-Iranian.
2. A member of the people who spoke the parent language of the Indo-European languages. No longer in technical use.
3. A member of any people speaking an Indo-European language. No longer in technical use.
4. In Nazism and neo-Nazism, a non-Jewish Caucasian, especially one of Nordic type, supposed to be part of a master race.

[From Sanskrit ārya-, compatriot, ethnic self-designation of the Indo-Iranians of ancient India.]

Ary·an adj.

Word History: When most English speakers hear the word Aryan, they probably think of it as referring primarily to northern Europeans in the context of the racist theories of European physical and mental superiority espoused by the Nazis. Originally, however, the word referred to the early Indo-Iraniansthe Indo-European peoples who inhabited parts of what are now Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Their tribal self-designation was a word reconstructed as *arya- or *ārya-. The first of these is the form found in Iranian, as ultimately in the name of Iran itself (from Middle Persian Ērān [šahr], "[Land] of the Iranians," from the genitive plural of Ēr, "Iranian"). The variant *ārya- is found unchanged in Sanskrit, where it referred to the upper classes of ancient Indian society. These words became known to European scholars in the 18th century. In the 1830s, Friedrich Schlegel, a German scholar who was an important early Indo-Europeanist, came up with a theory that linked the Indo-Iranian words with the German word Ehre, "honor," and older Germanic names containing the element ario-, such as the Swiss warrior Ariovistus, who was written about by Julius Caesar. Schlegel theorized that far from being just a designation of the Indo-Iranians, the word *arya- had in fact been what the Indo-Europeans called themselves, meaning something like "the honorable people." This theory, however, has since been called into question. Nevertheless, Aryan came to be synonymous with Indo-European in the writings of many Indo-Europeanists, and in this sense the term entered the general scholarly consciousness of the day. Not much later, it was proposed that the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans had been in northern Europe. From this theory, it was but a small leap to think of the Aryans as having had a northern European physiotype. While these theories were being developed, certain anti-Semitic German scholars singled out the Jews as the main non-Aryan people in Germany because of their Semitic roots. A distinction thus arose in these scholars' minds between Jews and the "true Aryan" Germans, a distinction that later furnished fodder for the racial theories of the Nazis.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices

    Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

    Indo-European Roots

    Semitic Roots

    The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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