The late 1970s were a turning point for the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area. The steel industry that had powered the region's economy for more than a century was beginning its long decline; within a decade, many mills would close. But there was a bright spot amid the gloom: The local NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers, had won four Super Bowl championships in the 1970s. After the 1978 win, as was the custom, the team created a highlights film. In it, announcer John Facenda paid tribute not only to the team but also to the fans, giving them a nickname that would endure and resonate: He dubbed them "Steeler Nation."
More than four decades later, the "__ Nation" formula has evolved into one of the most effective ways to conjure enthusiasm and affiliation in the world of sports — Red Sox Nation and Raider Nation have been around since the 1980s as the official names of baseball and football fan clubs, respectively—and far beyond: in business, entertainment, politics, and the nonprofit sector.
Live Nation, founded in 1996, operates entertainment venues, promotes events, and sells tickets. Science Nation is the online magazine of the National Science Foundation. Pantsuit Nation was founded in October 2016 as a "secret" Facebook group by supporters of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was famous for wearing colorful pantsuits on the campaign trail; the group now claims to have 3.8 million members worldwide. And in late 2018 Fox News launched Fox Nation, a subscription-only streaming service for "superfans" of the right-wing network, according to an in-depth story in the New York Times Magazine.
There's a "total body workout" called Rise Nation (a registered trademark); a "career exploration products" company called Roadtrip Nation (also a trademark); and "a bipartisan cross-sector, national campaign to expand economic mobility and restore the American Dream" called Opportunity Nation (yep, another trademark).
This ubiquitous, and relatively recent, commercial sense of nation veers away from the word's earlier meanings. And it intersects in interesting ways with a related word that's also in the spotlight right now: nationalism.
When nation entered English from French around 1300, it retained the sense of its Latin root, nationem: literally "that which has been born." (The Spanish and French verbs for "to be born," nacer and naître, reveal the connection, as do the English words nascent and nativity.) A nation consisted of people who were born in the same place and shared a language, "race," or ancestry: When Shylock says, in The Merchant of Venice, "He hates our sacred nation," he's referring to Jewish people, not England.
The political sense of nation — an organized community sharing a defined territory and government — emerged around 1400 and gradually predominated, although the earlier meaning survives in the use, since the 1640s, of nation to describe indigenous American peoples: Choctaw Nation, Cherokee Nation. (The specifically Canadian "First Nations" began to be used in the 1970s; it applies to indigenous peoples south of the Arctic Circle and replaces "Indian," which is both inaccurate and, according to some people, offensive.)
Nation didn't turn into the adjective national until the 1590s ("the nationall assemblie"); the noun sense of national — a citizen or subject of a specified state — emerged in the mid-19th century. (Then there's the Grand National, which is a horse race if you're English, Irish, or Scottish, and a rodeo if you're Californian.) Nationalism, defined as "advocacy or support of the interests of one's own nation, usually to the detriment or exclusion of any other nation's interests") is a little older: The OED's earliest citation is from 1798. An 1844 citation from Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country declares that "Nationalism is another word for egotism."
There's a fine yet finite line between national and nationalist. Keywords for Today, a useful lexicon of "21st century vocabulary" compiled by academics and lexicographers in the U.K. and the U.S., distinguishes between national feeling ("good") and nationalist feeling ("bad if it is another's country, making claims against one's own"). Similarly, one's own national interest is "good," while nationalism — "the asserted national interest of another group" — is to be deplored.
A strain of nationalism that barely had a label before 1990 has been in the headlines recently. On April 9, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held a hearing to explore the spread via social media of white nationalism; the committee's chair, Rep. Jerry Nadler, said the ideology had led to many recent deadly attacks. It has certainly bullied its way into the international conversation: Keywords for Today says the phrase "shows a practically vertical movement on frequency charts in the past thirty years" — probably not coincidentally the period in which the internet sprouted and flourished. In earlier decades, it went by names such as white supremacy or simply racism.
Black nationalism, by contrast, has deeper roots; the phrase goes back to the 1940s or even earlier. As an active movement, it began spreading in the 1960s. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, defines black nationalism as "categorically different than white nationalism, in that black extremism is a reaction to real and brutal oppression."
There's an element of inherent pride in both nation and nationalism, but nationalism tips the scales toward superiority and separatism; its synonyms include jingoism and chauvinism, which imply dangerous excess. A nationalist may, in some places around the globe, simply want independence from colonial rule or dictatorship; but once independence is attained, nationalists tend to have a blinkered view of the world outside their borders.
And the citizens of "nations" like Roadtrip Nation and Pantsuit Nation? They may be proud of those affiliations, but that doesn't make them nationalists (with the possible exception of Fox Nation) unless you count that mid-19th-century "egotism" definition. If you're a card-carrying member of Side Hustle Nation, you may well believe yourself to be superior to all those 60-hour-a-week wage slaves: One nation, under a logo. The "__ Nation" formula evokes a brand, a tribe, a sense of unity. And more: A nation has a flag, laws, an anthem, a shared history, a sense of common purpose.
Recall that when John Facenda coined "Steeler Nation," he drew a distinction between the victorious Pittsburgh squad and the defeated Dallas Cowboys. Dallas, he said, had the misfortune of being a single team. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, wasn't merely a group of players, or even the city and ticket-buyers they represented. It was "an entire nation."
(Thanks to Ben Zimmer for the link to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about the birth of Steeler Nation.)