Nomad: Word Origin

Traveling has been a desire for several years now and although I haven’t yet pulled the trigger on a nomadic lifestyle, I feel myself inching closer to it. With an eye on a passive income, I’m making my way to a sustainable client list that will help me achieve my admittedly conventional millennial goal. And yes, even more trite, Paris or rather all of France is my ideal destination. This week has got me thinking about broadening my horizons but also about the origins of words thanks to John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, an interesting look into the history of communication. Here is my marrying of the two: the origin of the word nomad.

The general definition used today is (noun):
Someone who doesn’t stay in one place long.

  • Nemein and Nomas (Greek)

First, let’s look at the root greek word *nem, or to “assign,” “allot” or “take.” This root word spread especially into the English language converging into the Middle English “nim,” or “to take.” The words nomad, economy, astronomy, nemesis and Nomos all originate from the Greek word “Nemein,” also coming from “nem.” In this sense, the connection between Nemein and nem is “to allot” or “to distribute” particularly in reference to maintaining pasture or dividing something into compartments, or allotting a melody or constellation for a specific purpose. This leads into the Greek word Nomas which translates to: pastoral people that wander about with their flocks.

Here is a passage from “The “Aeneid” of Virgil” written between 29–19 BC and translated by Theodore C. Williams:

Because of thee yon Libyan savages
and nomad chiefs are grown implacable,
and my own Tyrians hate me. Yes, for thee
my chastity was slain and honor fair,
by which alone to glory I aspired,
in former days.

The Aeneid tells the story of the Trojan Aeneas, of which the first half of a 12-part poem illustrates Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy of whom is ultimately regarded as one of the founding ancestors of the Romans.

  • Nomade (French)

The English word ‘nomad’ and its modern meaning is from the French word “nomade.” An alternate French definition extends past people with no permanent settlement. Animals can be considered nomads as well if they move from season to season - ie. migration.