Origin: 1800–10; Related forms
< Latin Caucasi
) (< Greek Kaukásios,
equivalent to Kaúkas
adj. suffix) + -an
non-Cau·ca·sian, adjective, noun
Coined by German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach at the turn of the 19th century, the racial classification Caucasian has sparked plenty of debate in its short time in the English language. First there’s the issue of Blumenbach’s mistaken etymology: he erroneously placed the origins of the “White” race in the Caucasus mountain region. He also, not at all humbly, knocked his predecessor, Carl Linnaeus’ singular method of studying teeth to determine race, calling it “artificial” and asserting that it “came every day to be encumbered with more troublesome anomalies.” Blumenbach, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of studying the entire skull to understand the quandary that is race.
When anthropologists first started studying race, white supremacy was popularly accepted. Blumenbach was, at least, a bit more progressive than his contemporaries, in that he believe that all men belonged to the same species, even if he considered the Caucasian race—his own race—to be the original type and the “most handsome and becoming” of all five races (Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, Malayan, and American) in his now-outdated classification.
The language of race is undeniably a sensitive issue. Words that were once perfectly acceptable become dated and offensive. In his book The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race, Bruce David Baum notes: “[T]he notion of a Caucasian race has gone in and out of vogue…in popular usage since it was invented in the late eighteenth century.” In a 2008 speech Hillary Clinton used the term “Caucasian,” however, the writers of the 2010 U.S. Census form opted to use the term “White” over “Caucasian” in the question about race. For most Americans, the terms are interchangeable. With that in mind, it’s probably best to choose your words carefully when in the presence of anthropologists.
—The Caucasian Chalk Circle: A 1944 modernist play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
—Caucasian Review of International Affairs: An academic journal dealing with the Caucasus region, published quarterly.
—Caucasian Ovcharka: A breed of dogs, also called the Caucasian Shepard.
“[T]he status of Caucasian…as a scientifically credible racial category…is arguably no better than that of an Aryan race.“
—Bruce David Baum, The rise and fall of the Caucasian race: a political history of racial identity (2006)
“Eighteen million of you, from all walks of life—women and men, young and old, Latino and Asian, African-American and Caucasian, rich, poor, and middle-class, gay and straight, you have stood with me.“
—Hillary Clinton, in a speech announcing suspension of presidential campaign and Obama support, American Rhetoric (delivered June 7, 2008)
“The Caucasian mountains have not as yet attracted the attention of geologists in a degree corresponding to their real importance in the history of the formation of the earth's crust.“
—V. Dingelstedt, “The Igneous Rocks of the Caucasus“ Scottish Geographical Magazine, Volume 12 (1896)