The term European may appear semantically simple: European means “belonging to Europe” and Europe is the name of a continent. Hence the link between the word and a referent in the real world may appear 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.
An ideologically charged term, it moves between the descriptive and prescriptive modes. Historically associated with the privileged status of Western European culture or, more recently, with an attempt to confederate a largely contiguous but disparate group of nation-states, the term alternately elicits praise and blame. European has thus become a locus for arguing over definitions of ethnicity, identity, and sovereignty.
While Medieval Latin Europa and Middle English Europe were both current as geographical terms, medieval writers wishing to refer collectively to a shared culture among those peoples and nations would be more likely to employ a term such as latinitas (or one of its related forms) to designate the political, linguistic, and religious reach of the former Roman Empire and its conquests. As an adjective and a substantive, European comes into regular usage only from C16—that is, from the age of seagoing exploration. It is formed on the classical Latin adjective Eurōpaeus. The place name Europe (Latin Eurōpa, Greek Eurṓpē) 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 meaning history as presented by the OED is relatively simple: (i) “Of, relating to, or characteristic of Europe or its inhabitants” (1555), with a subsense from 1714 onward 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) and various developments of this sense; (iv) “Designating animals and plants native to or originating in Europe,” e.g., European beaver, etc. (1678); and (v) from 1714 onward various uses relating to notional or prospective unions or associations of European countries, and from 1952 onward referring to the European Union and its various precursor organizations. This last use is dominant in British political discourse, and has given rise to numerous derivative formations such as Euroskeptic, but is semantically relatively uncomplicated, except where it touches on or is colored by other much hazier and much more contentious uses of the word, which lurk behind some of the OED’s other definitions.
European has proved a historically durable, if notional, tool of identity for those wishing to gather under its banner, as well as for those rallying to oppose it. It has simultaneously been seen as synonymous with an enlightened ideal of political pluralism or with an oppressive colonialism (or both). The adjectival and nominal forms have traditionally participated in a set of concentric assumptions that are at once racial (white), religious (Christian), and political (constitutional). The opposite of European has thus been variously imagined as “Saracen,” “New World,” “African,” or “muslim.” Edward Said influentially decried what critics have since called the “Eurocentric universalism” that privileged the European over other categories of identity and reified perceived divergence from its assumed ideal (white, Christian, democratic). Postcolonial criticism has explored the ways in which European identity has been structured around a set of binaries (civilized/uncivilized; colonizer/ colonized; rational/irrational; Western/non-Western). In this way, the term marks both a physical space and a variety of (sometimes competing) metaphysical ideals.
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 lC18. 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 southeastern 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 the mid to late C20 as Cold War rivalries divided Europe crudely and sharply into a west and East; usage today has once again become 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, which 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 in part as an inheritance of the geopolitical divisions—and the rhetoric—of the Cold War. It also has much 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, 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 most prototypically of the old provinces of the western half of the Roman Empire, very roughly corresponding (with additions 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 have reinforced the central role of the western half of the continent in the development of those forces that 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, as 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 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 center (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 different converging cultural and political factors stretching from Antiquity to the economic and political landscape of post–Cold War Europe.
These 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—and especially of its more westerly parts—and any relatively dark-skinned populations seen as belonging indigenously elsewhere. The sinister potential of this can be seen, for instance, in Oswald Mosley’s postwar “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; and even for a single speaker the same set of considerations may not always be in play.
So far the focus of this entry has been deliberately Eurocentric in at least one respect, because 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 will almost invariably have been born there and may well return there (one of the OED’s earliest examples in fact comes 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 nonetheless may be seen as in some ways foregrounding cultural factors. This use illuminates the dangerous polysemy of European: who or what is conceptualized as European differs very much with our perspective, in ways that are seldom rigorously identified or thought through, but which inform and feed upon one another.
The refugee crisis of 2015 and the British vote to leave the European Union in June 2016 have foregrounded the difficulty with which the European Union now confronts both global developments and resurgent nationalisms. The dream of Europe providing a transcendent political entity that would transcend the nationalisms of the past and embrace the different ethnicities of the future has never looked more threadbare. Perhaps the greatest challenge that Europe faces is the rise of a xenophobic nationalism. Following the recent political gains of the far right, who are as opposed to the “European” as to the “non-European,” the liberal pluralism that ushered in the European Union era may be as difficult to maintain as its fuzzy internal borders.