Black's Law Dictionary defines a nation as:
A people, or aggregation of men, existing in the form of an organized jural society, usually inhabiting a distinct portion of the earth, speaking the same language, using the same customs, possessing historic continuity, and distinguished from other like groups by their racial origin and characteristics, and generally, but not necessarily, living under the same government and sovereignty.
Ernest Renan's What is a Nation? (1882) declares that "race is confused with nation and a sovereignty analogous to that of really existing peoples is attributed to ethnographic or, rather linguistic groups", and "The truth is that there is no pure race and that to make politics depend upon ethnographic analysis is to surrender it to a chimera", echoing a sentiment of civic nationalism. He also claims that a nation is not formed on the basis of dynasty, language, religion, geography, or shared interests. Rather, "A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form", emphasizing the democratic and historical aspects of what constitutes a nation, although, "Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation". "A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity", which he said is reaffirmed in a "daily plebiscite".
The nation has been described by Benedict Anderson as an "imagined community" and by Paul James as an "abstract community". It is an imagined community in the sense that the material conditions exist for imagining extended and shared connections. It is an abstract community in the sense that it is objectively impersonal, even if each individual in the nation experiences him or herself as subjectively part of an embodied unity with others. For the most part, members of a nation remain strangers to each other and will never likely meet. Hence the phrase, "a nation of strangers" used by such writers as Vance Packard.
The word nation came to English from the Old French word nacion – meaning "birth" (naissance), "place of origin" -, which in turn originates from the Latin word natio (nātĭō) literally meaning "birth".