[From Sanskrit rya-, noble, Aryan.]
Word History: It is one of the ironies of history that Aryan, a word nowadays referring to the blond-haired, blue-eyed physical ideal of Nazi Germany, originally referred to a people who looked vastly different. Its history starts with the ancient Indo-Iranians, Indo-European peoples who inhabited parts of what are now Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Their tribal self-designation was a word reconstructed as *arya- or *rya-. The first of these is the form found in Iranian, as ultimately in the name of Iran itself (from Middle Persian rn (ahr), “(Land) of the Iranians,” from the genitive plural of r, “Iranian”). The variant *rya- is found unchanged in Sanskrit, where it referred to the upper crust of ancient Indian society. These words became known to European scholars in the 18th century. The shifting of meaning that eventually led to the present-day sense started in the 1830s, when Friedrich Schlegel, a German scholar who was an important early Indo-Europeanist, came up with a theory that linked the Indo-Iranian words with the German word Ehre, “honor,” and older Germanic names containing the element ario-, such as the Swiss warrior Ariovistus who was written about by Julius Caesar. Schlegel theorized that far from being just a designation of the Indo-Iranians, the word *arya- had in fact been what the Indo-Europeans called themselves, meaning something like “the honorable people.” (This theory has since been called into question.) Thus “Aryan” came to be synonymous with “Indo-European,” and in this sense entered the general scholarly consciousness of the day. Not much later, it was proposed that the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans had been in northern Europe. From this theory, it was but a small leap to think of the Aryans as having had a northern European physiotype. While these theories were playing themselves out, certain anti-Semitic scholars in Germany took to viewing the Jews in Germany as the main non-Aryan people because of their Semitic roots; a distinction thus arose in their minds between Jews and the “true Aryan” Germans, a distinction that later furnished unfortunate fodder for the racial theories of the Nazis.