The name derives from Latin natio and originally described the colleagues in a college or students, above all at the University of Paris, who were all born within a pays, spoke the same language and expected to be ruled by their own familiar law. In 1383 and 1384, while studying theology at Paris, Jean Gerson was twice elected procurator for the French nation (i.e. the French-born Francophone students at the University). The Paris division of students into nations was adopted at the University of Prague, where from its opening in 1349 the studium generale was divided among Czech, Bavarian, Saxon and Polish nations.
In a somewhat more strict sense, however, nation denominates a people in contrast to country which denominates a territory, whereas state expresses a legitimised administrative institution. Confusingly, the terms national and international are used as technical terms applying to states, see country.
The idea of a nation remains somewhat vague, in that there is generally no strict definition for exactly who is considered to be a member of any particular nation. Many modern states show a great diversity of cultural behaviours and ethnic backgrounds. England may furnish a classic example: a territory which is not a state, since it has no government of its own, and which has large immigrant populations and diverse cultural behaviour, yet which is often described as a nation.
Governments of stable nation-states may address this problem by granting nationality, sometimes distinguished from citizenship, to those who have one or both parents already possessing nationality, or who are born within the country in question. When granting nationality to immigrants, authorities sometimes apply language and cultural knowledge tests, but now often ignore ethnicity in order to avoid racism and/or the accusation thereof.
Groups which are in some way culturally coherent (or who claim to be) are sometimes described as nations, despite not sharing a territory (see diaspora). Examples of such concepts include the Romany nation and the Jewish nation (especially before the creation of the state of Israel).