A nation is a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture. A nation is distinct from a people, and is more abstract, and more overtly political, than an ethnic group. It is a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its autonomy, unity, and particular interests.
nation, n. (14c) 1. A large group of people having a common origin, language, and tradition and usu. constituting a political entity. • When a nation is coincident with a state, the term nation-state is often used....
2. A community of people inhabiting a defined territory and organized under an independent government; a sovereign political state....
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 "[t]he 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 does not form 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, "[f]orgetting, 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 Renan says is reaffirmed in a "daily plebiscite".
Benedict Anderson has characterised a nation as an "imagined community" and Paul James sees it as an "abstract community". A nation 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 likely never meet. Hence the phrase, "a nation of strangers" used by such writers as Vance Packard.
The word nation came 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".
The word "nation" is sometimes used as synonym for:
State (polity) or sovereign state: a government which controls a specific territory, which may or may not be associated with any particular ethnic group
Country: a geographic territory, which may or may not have an affiliation with a government or ethnic group
Thus the phrase "nations of the world" could be referring to the top-level governments (as in the name for the United Nations), various large geographical territories, or various large ethnic groups of the planet.
Depending on the meaning of "nation" used, the term "nation state" could be used to distinguish larger states from small city states, or could be used to distinguish multinational states from those with a single ethnic group.