eth·nic (thnk) KEY
Middle English, heathen, from Late Latin ethnicus, from Greek ethnikos, from ethnos, people, nation; see s(w)e- in Indo-European roots
When it is said in a Middle English text written before 1400 that a part of a temple fell down and "mad a gret distruccione of ethnykis," one wonders why ethnics were singled out for death. The word ethnic in this context, however, means "gentile," coming as it does from the Greek adjective ethnikos, meaning "national, foreign, gentile." The adjective is derived from the noun ethnos, "people, nation, foreign people," that in the plural phrase ta ethn meant "foreign nations." In translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, this phrase was used for Hebrew gym, "gentiles"; hence the sense of the noun in the Middle English quotation. The noun ethnic in this sense or the related sense "heathen" is not recorded after 1728, although the related adjective sense is still used. But probably under the influence of other words going back to Greek ethnos, such as ethnography and ethnology, the adjective ethnic broadened in meaning in the 19th century. After this broadening the noun sense "a member of a particular ethnic group," first recorded in 1945, came into existence.