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Country vs. Nation: Similarities and Differences

While globalization has brought various challenges to nations or countries since the 1990s, the bonds of common culture, values, and family remain strong in many such nations. We often use the terms “country” and “nation” interchangeably, but have you ever wondered what the difference between a country and a nation is?

The expressions “country” and “nation” are largely synonymous when we use them in the sense of a political state. However, we more often associate the concept of a country to the land or territory, while a nation has closer connections to its people, both practically and etymologically.

Our concept of a “nation” or “nation-state” is relatively new considering the more ethnic and tribal associations of the ancient past. I’ll trace the developments of the terms “country” and “nation” in English and compare them to similar concepts in other western cultures to tease out their meaning.

The Essential Difference between Country and Nation

The land or region of a person’s birth, residence, or citizenship.A large, politically organized community of people.
From Latin tera contrata, “land lying opposite”From Latin natus, “born”

While there are additional definitions for each term, those we show above best illustrate the fundamental concepts behind each word. Dictionaries will often use the terms to define one another, but each word does have a distinct emphasis.

What Is a Country?

While a country is also a community, society, people, or state, we associate countries more closely with a land, region, or territory. Some use such terms as “homeland,” “motherland,” or “fatherland” to express affection for their country of birth (source).

However, we can also use “country” to refer to the population of a region or the electorate when we say things like “the country elected representatives.” 

What Is a Nation?

Demonstrating their overlap, the Cambridge Dictionary uses the word “country” to define “nation,” especially regarding a substantial group dwelling in a particular area with their own government, traditions, and language (source). 

Oxford’s Lexico describes it as a people united by a common history, language, culture, or descent that inhabit a specific country or territory (source).

Synonyms for “nation” include a “community,” “society,” “people,” “population,” “state,” “union,” or “tribe” with its own government (source). “Country” shares most of these synonyms except for “tribe” and “union,” showing the greater emphasis of the term “nation” on people groups.

The Cambridge Dictionary also provides a similar but different definition of a nation absent restrictions to geographical boundaries. This definition is closer to the older, tribal definition of a nation and is not synonymous with “country” in that sense.

As Webster’s 1828 Dictionary notes, a nation used to refer to a “family or race of men” descended from a common ancestor, much like a tribe. Webster also noted how this distinction no longer applied to many nations in his day due to the widespread intermixture of ethnic groups and cultures (source).

It is also possible for one nation to govern multiple, less powerful nations, and we usually refer to such a nation as an empire. A 20th-century example would include the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where a union of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary controlled smaller regions populated by Slavic peoples.

Medieval Feudal States and Early Nationalism

The English words “country” and “nation” emerged as feudalism began to break down in the 13th century. The rise of cities and the expansion of trade lead to larger political associations, including city-states, city leagues of merchants, and the precursors to nation-states. 

At that time, rival city-states dominated northern Italy, while, on the Baltic Sea, various merchants from key cities formed a powerful trade organization known as the Hanseatic League.

However, France and England began to draw on the prosperity of their middle-class citizens and nationalist sentiment to build the precursors of the nation-state under Edward I (AD 1272–1307 AD) and Philip IV (1285–1314 AD) respectively.

The Middle-Class Influence on the State

By that time, Roman Catholicism had developed into a sort of international governing body, but when Edward I and Philip IV  went to war with each other, they taxed their respective clergy to help pay for it. This taxation was against Catholic canon law, and Pope Boniface VIII forbade priests to pay without the pope’s consent.

However, by this time, England and France each had a strong enough middle-class to support them in resisting the pope. 

Under Edward I, the Commons became part of the English Parliament to represent townsmen and rural landowners. The English Parliament enacted legislation forbidding English priests to acknowledge the pope’s claims to temporal power in England.

Meanwhile, Philip IV forbade sending either French gold or silver to Italy, and he arrested a papal legate for treason. When the pope challenged the French king’s actions, Philip had the support of the Estates-General, the French parliament.

The king could use the middle-class to check the power of the local nobility and oppose outside influences that sought to meddle with their internal affairs. 

French Revolutionary Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, or Abbé Sieyès, defined a nation as “A body of associates living under one common law and represented by the same legislature.” 

A state has well-defined jurisdictional authority within specified territorial boundaries. As a result, Dani Rodrik of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University argues that the nation emerged from the state and not the other way around (source).

Our words for “country,” “state,” and “nation” all emerge around this time.

Country in Middle English

Image by Sera Bryant via Unsplash

The English word “country” emerged in the mid-13th century to refer to a person’s native land and then to a geographic area by 1300. It comes from the Latin tera contrata, meaning land lying opposite in the sense of the land that lies before you (source).

In the High Middle Ages, the English also used the term to refer to the land outside of city walls, which is how we derived our use of the word to refer to something as rural or rustic.

Also around 1300, the English began to apply the word “state,” from French estat, to refer to the condition of the country in relation to its government. Previously, the word applied primarily to one’s state or status in society.

Nation in Middle English

Our English word “nation” emerged around 1300 to refer to a large group of people that share a common ancestry and language. The word ultimately came from the Latin noun forms derived from the verb for “born,” natus, from which we also get “natal” and “nature.”

This relates closely to the older sense of the word “nation” that Webster referred to as a large group of people with a common ancestry and language. It’s also closely related to the word “ethnicity,” which we ultimately derived from the Greek word for nation, ethnos, found in the Greek New Testament.

In the 14th century, a sense of English consciousness emerged as the king established common law courts, which helped to standardize English. They also developed a sense of shared ancestry and culture above their local feudal ties yet distinct from that of Continental Europe.

By the late 14th century, the English used the word “citizen,” which normally referred to an inhabitant of a town or city, to refer to an inhabitant or member of a country, state, or nation.

What Is a Nation-State?

A nation-state combines the concepts of country, state, and nation as a territorially bounded community whose citizens identify as a nation under the same government. It is also a fusion of the concepts of state sovereignty and popular sovereignty (source).

The Emergence of Nation-States

The concept of the nation-state would take centuries to fully develop as we would recognize it. In England, the rise of the Tudor Dynasty at the end of the War of the Roses in 1485 saw key developments in the rise of the centralized nation-state.

That war devastated the English nobility and allowed the king to form even closer ties to the commercial middle-class. In exchange for security and order, the middle-class, through Parliament, granted the king power and authority.

However, it was during the European Wars of Religion from 1524 to 1697 that the concepts of the nation-state and national sovereignty truly became solidified. 

After a series of brutal conflicts, the Catholic and Protestant nations had to face the prospect of constantly remaining at war or coming to terms with one another’s existence.

Through the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, various independent European nations finally secured their legal status as sovereign territories. The warring nations agreed to recognize the right of one another to manage their own internal affairs.

Those nations and tribes that had not yet formed nation-states remained far more vulnerable to outside influence, as the development of the international slave trade would demonstrate.

Some historians credit the English Commonwealth of 1649 as the first nation-state, while others refer to France after the French Revolution. Regardless, the nation-state has become the dominant political structure since the 18th century.

Nationality and National Status

As of the writing of this article, the United States recognizes 195 sovereign states in the world (source). The United Nations recognizes 250 countries and territories while recognizing 193 sovereign states (source).

According to Merriam-Webster, the actual term “nation-state” did not emerge until around 1895, and older dictionaries simply used “nation” for essentially the same concept.

The term “nation-state” refers to a sovereign state with a relatively homogenous population, meaning one nationality instead of multiple, legally recognized nationalities.

Different nations can have different qualifications for citizenship status, whether it’s based on civic relationships and acceptance of the political culture or primarily through blood ties. A nation’s citizenship regime has much to do with its source of national identity and national pride.


Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

Historians tend to link nationalism with the American and French Revolutions of the 18th century. The word itself does not appear in English until 1798, but by 1715, English speakers used the term “nationalist” to refer to someone devoted to their nation.

Nationalism describes that loyalty, especially as an expression of praise for one’s nation above all others and the concern for promoting its culture and interests.

As Larry P. Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, pointed out, many world leaders and even dictionaries misconstrue this as a concern only for one’s country, and they try to draw a distinction between patriotism and nationalism (source).

Arnn noted that this is no more so than it would be for a parent’s duty to care for their own child to imply that they care only for them. The very act of caring for their child involves the care of others. As it turns out, patriotism derives from the Latin word for father, patria.

Civic Nationalism vs. Ethnonationalism

Nationalism can take several forms, such as civic nationalism, romantic nationalism, ethnonationalism, or cultural nationalism, each differing in how the citizen identifies with the nation. These are also ideals that tend to overlap in reality.

Civic nationalism emphasizes individual rights and equality before the law as it views the nation as a voluntary association of people of diverse backgrounds. This contrasts sharply with ethnonationalism, which is nationalism based on race or ethnicity. 

Ethnonationalism tends to focus on blood ties and leans toward tribalism. Intense ethnonationalist sentiments, like those of Nazi Germany, have led to the mass genocide of ethnic minorities.

In its purest form, nationalism is ultimately rooted in affection and love for one’s home, family, and people. These natural and deep-seated passions can boil over if you try to suppress them, so a government’s best bet is to channel them into something constructive (source).

In The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony views nationalism and the nation-state as the best alternative to the worst possible outcome of universal empire (source).

Sovereignty refers to the source of supreme power, and a sovereign state is one that has a recognized authority to govern its own affairs. Originally, the emerging feudal states of England and France placed this sovereignty solely with their kings.

However, national sovereignty, in addition to state sovereignty, is an extension of the notion of popular sovereignty, which means that a state belong’s to its people and should be accountable to them since they are those most affected by government decisions.

Origins of the Social Contract in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The contractual relationship between ruler and ruled became a particular point of contention following the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, which combined targeted assassinations by the French government and mob violence against the Protestant Huguenot religious minority.

Political philosophers such as Jean Bodin of France, William Barclay of Scotland, and Thomas Hobbes of England heavily favored the centralized authority of the state as represented by the king. 

They labeled their opponents, such as Calvinist theologian Theodore Beza, as “monarchomachs,” or those who fought against the monarch.

In contrast, Theodore Beza, who succeeded Calvin in Geneva, argued for a form of constitutional law to serve as a contract between the monarch and the people. In 1574, Beza wrote The Rights of Magistrates over their Subjects.

Samuel Rutherford, the Scottish Presbyterian minister and member of the Westminster Assembly, articulated a version of popular sovereignty in Lex, Rex: The Law and the Prince (1644) based on how the ancient Israelites set up their kings in the book of 1 Samuel (source).

The title itself, Lex, Rex, Latin for “the law is king,” implied that the king was subject to a higher law.

Meanwhile, Counter-Reformation Jesuit priests such as Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez also developed similar ideas of popular sovereignty independently using the Book of Genesis.

While John Locke was not a minister, he used many of the same arguments for popular sovereignty in his First Treatise of Civil Government and Second Treatise of Civil Government in 1689. 

Locke took the core of his arguments from the Book of Genesis, centering around man in the state of nature before the existence of civil government. The concept of the social contract, which further developed during the Enlightenment, was foundational for constitutionalism in American and Europe.


While popular sovereignty is a key element to the legitimation of the nation-state, many nation-states have had authoritarian governments rather than governments truly representative of their people.

Nation-states tend to form when monarchs or theocrats relinquish authority to representative bodies, but they can also form through the breakup of empires. 

The notion of the right to self-determination is an extension of popular sovereignty and nationalism, and US President Woodrow Wilson helped popularize this during World War I.

Since that time, many nations have formed from the breakup of empires in the Balkans, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. 

For more on empires and nations, read our article, “Empire vs. Kingdom: What’s the Difference?” Also, make sure you read our article, “Is Irish an Ethnicity?” for more on the meaning of ethnicity.

Final Thoughts

We use both “country” and “nation” to refer to a political state. “Country” has closer ties to a person’s homeland, while “nation” has a greater emphasis on a community of people. It is the legal protections provided by the nation-state to the bonds of family, homeland, and community that hold the nation-state together.