[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]
Politicks is the science of good sense, applied to public affairs, and, as those are forever changing, what is wisdom to-day would be folly and perhaps, ruin to-morrow. Politicks is not a science so properly as a business. It cannot have fixed principles, from which a wise man would never swerve, unless the inconstancy of men's view of interest and the capriciousness of the tempers could be fixed. [Fisher Ames (1758–1808)]
Politics may not have fixed principles, but as it is impossible to discuss it without fixed terms, it has a vocabulary. The words used to define positions and factions in politics are as slippery as any words in any language.
Back in 1911, Ambrose Bierce famously defined a "conservative" as "A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others" ["Devil's Dictionary"]. That still brings a smile to me, and still rang true as recently as 1970. But in the era of dynamic Reagan conservatism and in the international policies of the modern neo-cons, haven't those definitions reversed?
With conservatives trying to rewrite government and now the world, the party that traditionally calls itself liberal has been backed into a reactionary pose. Was it the conservatives or the liberals who said, before the Iraq invasion, "if you try to make it better, you'll only somehow make it worse!"Conservatism
as a modern political tradition traces to Edmund Burke's opposition to the French Revolution (1790), but the word conservative
is not found in his writing. It was coined by his French disciples, (e.g. Chateaubriand, who titled his journal defending clerical and political restoration "Le Conservateur"
as the name of a British political faction it first appeared in an 1830 issue of the "Quarterly Review," in an unsigned article sometimes attributed to John Wilson Croker. It replaced Tory
by 1843, reflecting both a change from the pejorative name (in use for 150 years) and repudiation of some reactionary policies. The word was extended to similar spirits in other parties from 1845.
"to keep, preserve" is a compound of com-
, used here as an intensitive marker, and servare
"keep watch, maintain," the same word at the root of observe
(literally "to watch over") and other words. The Proto-Indo-European base is *ser-
in the environmentalism sense is much later, attested from only 1922.
The sub-culture of the neo-conservative
movement was being called that in print by 1979. Irving Kristol, the movement's godfather, explained the source of the term in his retirement essay "Forty Good Years," published in "The Public Interest," Spring 2005:
My Republican vote [in the 1972 presidential election] produced little shock waves in the New York intellectual community. It didn't take long - a year or two - for the socialist writer Michael Harrington to come up with the term "neoconservative" to describe a renegade liberal like myself. To the chagrin of some of my friends, I decided to accept that term; there was no point calling myself a liberal when no one else did.
Whatever it once meant, it has been used to mean a great many things since then, either in its full form or in the abbreviation neocon
, attested by 1987. The term is attested from 1960, but its earlier uses had little to do with the modern sense; in fact the phrase often was applied to Russell Kirk and his followers, who would be philosophically opposed to the modern neocons.
Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, but rather a way of looking at the civil order. The conservative of Peru ... will differ greatly from those of Australia, for though they may share a preference for things established, the institutions and customs which they desire to preserve are not identical. [Russell Kirk (1918-1994)]
The name itself masks the essential nature of the movement, which is rooted in old liberal values, as Kristol indicated in "The Neoconservative Persuasion," in "The Weekly Standard," Aug. 25, 2003:
Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the 'American grain.' It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked.
The use of liberal
purely in reference to political opinion dates from c.1801, and its original political sense, "tending in favor of freedom and democracy" connects it to its origin as a translation of French libéral.
In English it was not originally a compliment; the word often was applied by opponents (and often in French form, with suggestions of foreign lawlessness) to the party favorable to individual political freedoms.
But the word also (and especially in U.S. politics) tended to mean "favorable to government action to effect social change," and in other related senses, familiar to modern political observers, which seem at times to draw more from the old adjective liberal
in its religious sense of "free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions" (and thus open to new ideas and plans of reform), which dates from 1823.
The adjective liberal
has been in English since the 1300s, borrowed from Old French liberal,
which meant "befitting free men, noble, generous." It is a descendant of Latin liberalis
"noble, generous," literally "pertaining to a free man," from liber
The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base of this is *leudheros
(which makes liberalis
a relative of Greek eleutheros
"free"), probably originally "belonging to the people," though the precise semantic development is obscure. That would be the original meaning if the root is connected to *leudho-
"people" (source of German Leute
"nation, people," among other words).
The earliest reference of liberal
in English is to the liberal arts
(Latin artes liberales
), the seven attainments directed to intellectual enlargement, not immediate practical purpose, and thus deemed worthy of a "free man" (the word in this sense was opposed not to conservative
but to servile
The word has an ambivalent history. It often was used in ways people felt as praise, and as often used in reproach. Liberal's
sense of "free in bestowing" (a praise-worthy quality) is attested from 1387. But with a meaning "free from restraint in speech or action" (1490) liberal
was used in the 16th and 17th centuries as a scolding term. It revived in a positive sense in the Enlightenment, with a meaning "free from prejudice, tolerant," which emerged 1776-88.Liberal
seem to have lost their political moorings in the modern American scene. The alternate division into right
seems to me more applicable to the modern political scene, where positions are taken relative to "the other side" and with little regard for ideological consistency.
Those political words are legacies of the French Revolution. French la gauche
(1791) and Droit
(1789) are said to have originated during the seating of the French National Assembly in 1789, at which the nobility took the seats on the President's right and left the Third Estate to sit on the left. The words made their way into English at different speeds: left
in a political sense was first attested in English in 1837 (by Carlyle, in reference to the French Revolution). It became general in U.S. and British political speech c.1900 (e.g. leftist
, 1924; left wing
in the political sense of "conservative" is first recorded 1794 (adj.), 1825 (n.). Right wing
in a political sense is first recorded 1905.
The words themselves are both perhaps euphemisms. Right
meaning "opposite of left" is attested in English from 1125, but its immediate ancestor, Old English riht
, did not have this sense. Rather, it meant "good, proper, fitting, straight" (a sense that still survives, e.g. do the right thing
The linguist Carl Darling Buck has written that, "The history of words for 'right' and 'left' shows that they were used primarily with reference to the hands." That is true in English right,
where the notion is of the right hand as the "correct" hand. The Old English adjective for the right hand was swiþra
, which literally means "stronger."
A similar sense evolution is in Dutch recht
and in German recht
"right (not left)," from Old High German reht
, which meant only "straight, just." Other modern words for "right (not left)" which were derived on a similar pattern to English right
are French droit
(from Latin directus
"straight"), Lithuanian labas
(literally "good"), and Slavic words (Bohemian pravy
, Polish prawy
, Russian pravyj
) derived from Old Church Slavonic pravu
, literally "straight."
The usual Proto-Indo-European root for "not left," *deks(i)-,
is represented by Sanskrit daksina-
, Greek dexios
, Latin dexter
(cf. Old French destre
, Spanish diestro
, etc.), Irish dess
, Welsh deheu
, Gothic taihswa
, Lithuanian desinas
, Old Church Slavonic desnu
, and Russian desnoj
, again, is not the original word for "not the right-hand side." It turns up in English c.1205, from the Kentish form of Old English lyft-
"weak, foolish." Compare it to Lithuanian kairys
"left" and Lettish kreilis
"left hand," which derive from a root that yields words for "twisted, crooked."
The same Germanic root that produced English left,
with a transferred sense of "opposite of right" also is found in related words along the North Sea coast (Middle Dutch and Low German luchter, luft
). But Modern German link
"left" is from Old High German slinc
, related to Old English slincan
"to crawl," Swedish linka
in this sense replaced Old English winestra
, which literally means "friendlier," a euphemism used superstitiously to avoid invoking the unlucky forces connected with the left side (cf. sinister,
which literally is Latin for "left, on the left side"). The Greeks also uses a euphemism for "left," aristeros
"the better one," as did the Persians (Avestan vairyastara-
"to the left," from vairya-
In addition to directional words, color words have been used throughout the ages to designate political factions. Red, white, and black have been the most common (though recently green
has joined the list). The blacks
in European history often represented the faction that took the side of the Church or the religious orders in national politics in Catholic lands (e.g. in early 20th century Rome, "supporter of the Vatican," as opposed to Whites
, supporters of the Italian monarchy). But by far the most common color word in politics has been red.Red
has had an association in Europe with revolutionary politics (on notion of blood and violence) since at least 1297, but that got a huge boost in 1793 with adoption of the red Phrygian cap (French bonnet rouge
), the old Roman simbol of a slave's liberation, as an emblem of the French Revolution. The first specific political reference in English was in 1848 in news reports of the Second French Republic (a.k.a. Red Republic
). In 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia took red as their color and the word, in the political sense, advanced into a new bloody century.
This led to pinko
(1936), a derogatory slang form of pink
, in reference to people whose social or political views "have a tendency toward 'red,' " a metaphor that had existed since at least 1837.
Bolsheviks themselves have nothing to do with red or left. The term comes from Russian bol'shiy "greater," the comparative of the adjective bol'shoy "big, great" (as in Bolshoi Ballet). It was the faction of Russian Social Democratic Worker's Party after a split in 1903 that was either larger or more extreme (or both) than the Mensheviks (from Russian men'shij "less"). Only after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 was the term applied generally to Russian communists.
entered English shortly before 1400 as a word in medieval philosophy, from Late Latin radicalis
"of or having roots," from the Latin word that is the same as English radish
(which, of course, is a root bulb). The meaning "going to the origin, essential" is recorded from 1651, which led to the political sense of "reformist" (via notion of "change from the roots"), which first is recorded in 1802, again in the tumultuous wake of the French Revolution.
The extremists of the French Revolution were Jacobins
, so called for the Dominican convent near the church of Saint-Jacques
in Paris, where the Revolutionary extremists took up quarters in 1789.
In the late 1830s in America, briefly, flared the delightfully named loco focos
, a term usually applied to a radical faction of the Democratic Party (but by the Whigs applied to all Democrats). The word originally was a name for a type of self-igniting cigar or match, and it's anyone's guess where it came from. One theory says perhaps it's from a misapprehension of the meaning of the first element of locomotive
as "self-" and Spanish fuego
"fire." The political use came about during one heated political meeting in New York, when the lights went out and the delegates used such matches to relight them. Progressive,
a word that has been in and out of use in American politics, is in again, with an apparently total unawareness that it has been here before and still is used by historians with a specific sense lacking in the current meaning of "uncompromising left-wing Democrat." It's the original meaning "characterized by advancement" that leads political factions yearning for change to take up the word as their title.
An extreme conservative used to be called a reactionary
(1840, on model of French réactionnaire
), a term from Marxism, where it was opposed to revolutionary
and used opprobriously in reference to opponents of communism. It often had little serious connection to the positions tagged with it, except in the minds of Marxists.
Moderates or centrists have had the hardest time of it in terms of labels, execrated from both sides and given a long list of insulting nicknames. Independent
meaning "person not acting as part of a political party" is from 1808. Centrist
is recorded from 1872, originally a borrowing from French politics. In the French Revolution, source of so much of modern English political language, a moderate might be a Girondist
, from Gironde
, the deputy in southwestern France that produced many of the faction's leaders.
In America, the preferred terms have been less flattering. In the late 19th century, such a man might be called a mugwump,
a name given to Republicans who refused to support corruption-tainted James G. Blaine for president in the acrimonious 1884 election, thus insuring Grover Cleveland's victory. Hence the name came to mean "one who holds himself aloof from party politics." Mugwump
was an older word for "great man, boss," taken into American English from Algonquian (Natick) mugquomp
Before that were the doughfaces,
the contemptuous nickname in U.S. politics for Northern Democrats who were seen as working in the interest of the South before the Civil War. It was taken to mean "man who allows himself to be moulded." But the source, in an 1820 speech by John Randolph of Roanoke, perhaps meant rather doe
as an animal afraid of its own reflection ["They were scared at their own dough faces"].
Later came goo-goo,
an 1890s shortening of Good Government
as a movement to clean up municipal corruption in Boston, New York, etc., that soon was extended to mean "naive political reformer." Republicrat
in U.S. political jargon, usually meaning "moderate," is attested from 1940.
A long time ago, at the beginning of the republic, men who did not align with either party might be called quids,
short for tertium quid,
a Latin phrase meaning "third something," and an alchemist's term for "unidentified element present in a combination of two known ones."