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Consider ethnic origins - or, rather, the origin of "ethnic."

It looks like a simple word, derived ultimately from the Greek ethnos, meaning nation or people. Ethnicity refers to a person's linguistic, cultural, religious or racial origin. By that measure, all humans are ethnic.

In practice, that's not how it works. Ethnic is used as a euphemism for people with a different background from whoever is using the word. It's a handy catch-all, short for ethnic minority. Its chief benefit is that it telegraphs in a single word what might otherwise take several to express. Its chief sin is that it can make people who use the word forget that ethnicity - differences in speech, look, national origin, cultural behaviour - covers all of us.

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The office of federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney used the word last week. Kasra Nejatian, the minister's director of multicultural affairs, sent a document to sympathetic Conservative MPs instructing them to raise funds. The money was to pay for advertising, in advance of an election campaign, to win the hearts and votes of Canadians whose backgrounds are South Asian, Chinese, Ukrainian and, veering into religion, Jewish.

As everyone now knows, Nejatian wrote his cover letter on ministerial letterhead, breaching the wall between the people's business and partisan politics. And he was undone by homonyms, words of different meanings that sound and are spelled alike. (Strictly speaking, this distinguishes them from homophones, which sound the same but are spelled differently.)

He apparently intended to send one document to Conservative MP John Duncan, and sent it instead to NDP MP Linda Duncan. Luckily, he didn't send it to Duncan Hines, or the Conservative strategy would have appeared on boxes of cake mix across the country instead of just being aired in the nation's media. But Nejatian resigned all the same.

The gist of the document was that electors in the four groups mentioned above wield significant clout. If they were to vote the way the Conservatives want them to, they might give the party a parliamentary majority in the next election. To underline that point, a table identifies 10 ridings where Chinese, South Asian, Ukrainian and Jewish voters could potentially swing the vote. The table bears this heading: "Target ridings - very ethnic."

Not just ethnic, then, but very ethnic - as opposed to those ridings that are barely ethnic at all, since they contain people who don't speak or look the way, well, ethnic people look. Isn't politics wonderful?

Yet here's the capper. Ethnic entered English in the Middle Ages with just that sense of them-not-us. Although ethnos meant nation, the people who first translated the Old Testament into Greek used the phrase ta ethne (foreign nations) for the Hebrew word goyim, meaning gentiles, people who weren't Jews. From this usage emerged the Greek ethnikos and the Latin ethnicus, which had the sense of heathen.

By the time ethnic reached English, it referred to nations that weren't Christian or Jewish. It's a measure of the fluctuations in language that the Conservatives use it now to refer to Canadians who are Jewish.

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By the mid-1800s, the adjective had largely shaken off its earlier us-and-them sense, and acquired the relatively neutral, anthropological meaning of a group with common cultural, linguistic, racial or religious aspects. But by the 1960s, the distancing definition had crept back. The Sun in London, England, observed in 1965 that ethnic "has come to mean foreign, or un-American, or plain quaint." Jacques Parizeau, then Quebec's premier, offered an infamous variation just after the 1995 referendum on whether that province should declare qualified independence. He blamed the defeat of the secessionist side on "money and the ethnic vote" - voters who weren't francophones.

It's certainly better to be courted than blamed. Based on the document from Kenney's office, if any Chinese-Canadian voter happens to be Jewish and to have been born in Ukraine, he can expect the wooing of his life.

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