The term European can appear semantically simple: European means ‘belonging to Europe’ and Europe is the name of a continent. Hence the link between word and referent in the real world may appear simple and unproblematic. However, in some of its most typical uses, particularly when applied to people, European shows a complex interplay of many different strands of meaning, seldom reflected on in everyday use but of great importance in shaping conceptions of cultural, ethnic, and racial identity.
European entered English in the mid 16c. It is formed on the classical Latin adjective Eurōpaeus. The place-name Europe (Latin Eurōpa, Greek Εὐρώπη) goes back to Antiquity, but Greek and Roman conceptions of both the eastward and northern boundaries of Europe were unsettled and hazy. The etymology from the name of Europa, a mythological princess of Tyre courted by Zeus in the form of a bull, is ancient but far from certain.
The semantic history as presented by the OED is relatively straightforward: (i) ‘Of, relating to, or characteristic of Europe or its inhabitants’ (1555), with a sub-sense from 1714 onwards distinguishing specifically continental Europe from Britain (which corresponds to a typical popular use of both Europe and European in contemporary British English); (ii) ‘Occurring in, or extending over, Europe’ (1575); (iii) ‘Of or designating a person of European origin or descent living outside the boundaries of Europe’ (1666), as well as various developments of this sense examined more closely below; (iv) ‘Designating animals and plants native to or originating in Europe’, e.g. European beaver, etc. (1678); and (v) from 1714 onwards, various uses relating to notional or prospective unions or associations of European countries, and then from 1952 onwards referring to the European Union and its precursor organizations. This last use is now dominant in British political discourse, and has given rise to numerous derivative formations such as Eurosceptic, but is semantically relatively uncomplicated, except where it touches on or is coloured by other much hazier and much more contentious uses of the word which lurk behind some of the OED’s other definitions.
For a modern geographer the eastward land boundaries of Europe are defined primarily by the Urals and (between the Black and Caspian seas) the Caucasus. This places modern Russia partly in Europe and partly in Asia – a fact of geopolitical importance at least since the late 18th cent. Similarly the narrow water boundary of the Bosphorus places modern Turkey largely in Asia but partly also in Europe; the situation of Istanbul straddling the geographical boundary between Europe and Asia provides an irresistible symbol for the cultural, ethnic, religious, and political complexities of Europe’s south-eastern boundaries. Unsurprisingly, divisions of the peoples and nations of Eurasia between ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ frequently reflect uncertainty about the ‘European’ status of Russia or Turkey and their inhabitants, although more than simply geographical considerations come into play here.
As far as attempts to subdivide Europe into distinct areas are concerned, those divisions which have an impact on general (as opposed to specialist geographical) discourse are considerably shaped by cultural, economic, and political factors. This is particularly evident on the east-west axis, where the old concept of Central Europe (German Mitteleuropa) fell largely into disuse in mid to late 20c as Cold War rivalries divided Europe crudely and sharply into a West and an East; usage today has once again become slightly more fluid.
Wherever the dividing lines are placed in more or less official use, it is not difficult to see a bias in the deployment of the terms Europe and European in general Anglophone discourse that regards nations in the western half of continental Europe as being somehow the most characteristically and prototypically European. There is a frequent blurring of the distinctions between the terms European, West European, and Western. This can be seen as in part an inheritance of the geopolitical divisions – and rhetoric – of the Cold War. It also has longer and deeper roots. In the Middle Ages Europe and European were relatively little used terms in any language (and the adjective European did not exist at all in English), but Christendom was a core concept, and later conceptions of Europe owe a great deal to this. In uses of the term Christendom there is again a distinct westward bias, with the lands showing obedience to the Roman Catholic Church being regarded as the most prototypical, core part of the European Christian world from an Anglophone perspective. These conceptions remained influential in the aftermath of the Reformation, when Europe began to be spoken of much more frequently, conceptualized as being composed prototypically of the old provinces of the western half of the Roman Empire, roughly corresponding (with addition of territories never part of the Empire) to the Catholic Christendom of the Middle Ages. Latinity is of course a key common factor here, defining a core Europe beside which the Orthodox east has a much less certain status: an uncertainty only reinforced after the fall of Constantinople and the long Ottoman domination of much of Europe’s east. In subsequent centuries, supranational intellectual and cultural movements such as the Enlightenment and Romanticism reinforced the central role of the western half of the continent in the development of those forces which have most obviously transcended national boundaries and helped develop a broader sense of cultural identity broadly analogous to that of medieval Christendom. Where empirical discoveries such as the relatedness of the Indo-European language family have seemed to foreground extra-European affiliations, they have been to a certain extent neutralized, for instance by assuming (almost certainly counterfactually) that the ancient ‘Aryans’ of south Asia must ultimately have originated from Europe. As already noted, an important influence informing contemporary usage is Europe (and hence European) as a shorthand for the European Union. The EU originated in the west of the continent and its most powerful economic and political voices are all broadly west of the Oder-Neisse line. By a simple set of associative steps we can see how a linkage Europe = EU = (continental) western Europe is set up, reinforcing and deepening the impression that the core of Europe in cognitive terms is well to the west of its geographical centre (itself an interestingly disputed title, with various locations in Lithuania, Hungary, Estonia, and Belarus among the claimants).
In the most characteristic uses of the word European to denote ideas and values we can thus see that the equation is not quite so simple as “European = from the continent of Europe”. Popular conceptions of the extent and boundaries of Europe may not be the same as geographical ones; and additionally there is a distinct westward geographical bias in what is seen as most prototypically European, as a result of numerous converging cultural and political factors stretching from Antiquity to the economic and political landscape of post-Cold War Europe.
The same factors come into play when European is applied to people, with added complications. Firstly, while the population of for instance France or Germany may be accorded the status of Europeans in any type of discourse, more uncertainty or controversy may arise in other cases, such as Britain (since in much popular British discourse Europe is still conceptualized as beginning on the other side of the Channel), or Russia or other former soviet republics, or parts of Turkey west of the Bosphorus. Secondly, while populations are mobile and fluid, this reality is often downplayed or denied in conceptualizations of ethnic identity. Here European often acts as shorthand for a complex combination of factors, typically not thought-through individually but vaguely apprehended as defining a European: race is crucial here, and often European is deployed as a means of drawing a distinction between the traditional indigenous populations of Europe (especially of its more westerly parts) and any relatively fair-skinned populations seen as belonging indigenously elsewhere. The sinister potential of this can be seen for instance in Oswald Mosley’s post-War “Europe a Nation” movement: an important factor in the use of European in this context is its implicit exclusion of numerous groups seen as non-indigenous, not least Jews. Outside such explicitly racist discourse, the subtle blending of racial and cultural factors in how European is applied to people and peoples can generate dangerous ambiguity: to take just two among many different mental configurations, for one speaker the prototypical European may be someone who embraces the principles of the Enlightenment and who resides in, originates from, or identifies closely with the continent of Europe, while for another speaker the prototypical European may be white and Christian (preferably belonging to one of a small selection of denominations); even for a single speaker, the same set of considerations may not always be in play.
So far the focus of this account of European has been deliberately Eurocentric in at least one respect: in that it has left until last a usage which the OED traces back to the 1660s as both adjective and noun, namely the application of European specifically to people living outside Europe. Here we may see a very interesting case of semantic change in action. In earliest use, traders or colonialists living outside Europe would almost invariably have been born there and may well return there (one of the OED’s earliest examples come from a translation of a French text in which “some of the European Inhabitants of these Islands” renders “nos François”); over the centuries in numerous different colonial and post-colonial contexts, this use becomes increasingly a synonym for white, applied to people who may well never have visited the continent of Europe and whose most recent ancestors permanently resident in Europe may go back several generations, but who are nonetheless identified as European. This is closely linked to use of European as a term in attempted schemes of racial classification dating back at least as far as Linnaeus in 1735, although the choice of European over e.g. white may nonetheless be seen as in some ways foregrounding cultural factors. This final use of European illuminates the word’s dangerous polysemy: who or what is conceptualized as European differs very much with our perspective, in ways that are seldom acknowledged or rigorously thought-through, but which inform and feed upon one another.