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Prior to the 20th century, what was the noun for an individual person from a country whose demonym ends in '-ese'?

English Language & Usage Asked by kurchatovium on July 29, 2020

As a Redditor pointed out, using a demonym that ends in ‘-ese’ as a noun sounds incorrect or at least awkward (especially a singular noun–someone on the thread writes, ‘For example you could say “I met a Chilean” but not “I met a Chinese.”’).

Most of the countries with ‘-ese’ demonyms seem to be in East Asia, and hence perhaps people in English-speaking countries didn’t have much occasion to talk about people from them until relatively recently. (The exception might be the giant country of China, for which there was a separate nounal demonym that is now considered a slur.) That might explain why there is no natural-sounding way to refer to ‘a Japanese’, ‘a Vietnamese’, etc. But what about countries that have been known to English-speaking peoples for a very long time, e.g., Portugal, or the city of Vienna (or perhaps Malta)? Did earlier English speakers have another way of referring to an individual from Portugal or Vienna (or anywhere else I might have missed) other than ‘a Portuguese’ or ‘a Viennese’, and if so, what was it? (And, out of curiosity, was there ever a separate nounal demonym for, say, Japan, or Burma, in the Victorian period, like there was for China?)

One Answer

The denonym was Japanese, Portuguese, Javanese, and so forth. (Although Burman is also attested for a native of Burma.) In the 18th century and earlier, these were at least sometimes pluralized as Japaneses, Portugueses, and Javaneses.

The OED has

Portuguese A1. A native or inhabitant of Portugal; a person of Portuguese descent.
1622 T. Robinson Anat. Eng. Nunnery Diuers Portugeses our neighbours.
1835 J. E. Alexander Sketches in Portugal I saw only one countryman, a cut-throat looking fellow.., chained to a Portuguese, and carrying sand for paviers.

Japanese B1. A native of Japan.
1604 E. Grimeston tr. J. de Acosta Nat. & Morall Hist. Indies A Iapponois reported this after hee was christened.

Javanese B1. A native of Java (formerly with plural Javaneses).
1704 tr. P. Baldæus Descr. Ceylon in A. Churchill & J. Churchill Coll. Voy. III. The Javaneses and Mardykers.

Answered by Peter Shor on July 29, 2020

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