Wayne State University
Cite as: Darwish, Mohanned. 2014. Radical. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 6. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/radical1.pdf
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
I regularly hear, on Arabic and Hebrew political talk shows, the word ‘radicali’, an Arabized/Hebraized form of the English ‘radical’, used in the same context as its English counterpart to refer, more often in a negative sense, to a fringe group/person of an extreme ideology. Arabic and Hebrew are certainly not without native words that carry the same meaning, so why some speakers of these Semitic languages opt to use the loanword instead has been a mystery to me. This made me wonder if the word ‘radical’ carries an intrinsic concept that can only be conveyed if the word itself or an altered form of it is used. Moreover, how did it acquire its negative sociopolitical connotations and maintain them through the many other languages that borrowed the word?
The first step in unraveling this mystery was to consult different English dictionaries. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, as a noun, radical has four main, yet very distinct definitions:
- Politics: ‘is a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; a member of a political party or part of a party pursuing such aims.’
- Linguistics: ‘Any of the root letters that form a base word.’
- Chemistry: ‘A group of atoms behaving as a unit in a number of compounds.’
- Mathematics: ‘a quantity forming or expressed as the root of another.’
All these definitions point to the fact that the radical serves as a basic unit of something bigger and more complex.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the etymology of the word comes from Late Latin radicalis, ‘of or having roots,’ from Latin radix ‘root’.
As a political term meaning ‘reformist’, it had first appeared in English in 1802 as a noun and in 1817 as an adjective. This came as no surprise to me since this semantic shift had occurred during a period riddled with revolutions and social change. The 18th century came to an end with the conclusion of the French Revolution, a decade of radical social and political upheaval in France, and the 19th century began with a rise in German nationalism, which fuelled the road to German unification and statehood.
In its political context, the idea of “radical” essentially starts with the French Revolution, which gave birth to the tripartite idea of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” From this beginning, the radical idea spread to the east through several iterations. Put differently, the radical idea was met by the counterforce of “reaction,” creating wars and revolutions that, it can be argued, continue to this day. It is worth recalling that many radicals, including Robespierre, who was the preeminent exponent of the “virtue” of revolutionary terror, was himself sent to the guillotine. Additionally, Napoleon used the French Army to fire on the radical Parisian mob. This “whiff of grapeshot,” as many historians call it, effectively ended the French Revolution, and after Napoleon’s empire was destroyed, the French Monarchy was restored.
The pendulum swinging towards and away from radicalism never rests. Further revolutions occurred in France and in central and eastern Europe. The “bourgeoisie monarchy” of Louis Philippe was put into power by one revolution in 1830 and ended by another in 1848. It is that revolution of 1848, derided by the historian Lewis Namier as the revolution of the intellectuals, which showed, if further proof was needed, that ideas (radical ideas especially) divorced from power of arms are worthless. Or are they? The picture is far from static.
The Paris Commune of 1871, in the wake of a bitter and humiliating defeat in foreign war, delivered power into revolutionary hands of a Paris under siege and facing starvation. Radicals ruled, and it was a very bloody affair. And yet, it was the idea of the Paris Commune that fired the minds of the radicals in the Russian Revolutionary movement. Whereas it can be said that the French Revolution was more or less “spontaneous,” its Russian counterpart was probably the most anticipated event of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lenin, after taking power and feeling his hold on it tenuous, counted the days in the hope of achieving and then surpassing the tenure of the Paris Commune. What Lenin ensured at the same time was the use of revolutionary terror to maintain his grip on the state. Proponents of radical policies have not forgotten this lesson in the past 100 years.
The word’s negative connotation is also connected to the Progressive Movement that began in the 19th century, which asserted that advances in science, technology, economic development, and social organization can improve the human condition. Since progression entails refining our ideas about a particular subject matter, the more we progress in this regard, the less ‘root’ ideas become pertinent to our existing state of affairs. So by virtue of this, when one continues to adhere to what becomes regarded as rudimentary, that is, the ‘root’ ideas, one regresses and thus falls out of favor with the status quo.
Though a period of drastic social change is needed as a fertile ground for new ideas to grow, it is only after enough time has elapsed for these new ideas to fully develop that the contrast between ‘rudimentary’ and ‘progressive’ becomes wide enough for “root” ideas to be regarded as extreme. A consultation with Google’s Ngram Viewer best demonstrates that.
It is only after the 20th century that the word ‘radical’ becomes more frequently used and mainly done so with political overtones as seen in the examples of ‘radical change’ and ‘radical reform’. This reflects that time is needed as a catalyst in societies to make more visible, when looked at in retrospect, the chasm between ideas that emerges with any sociopolitical change. Meanwhile, the word’s usage in any other sense declines like in the example of ‘radical cure’.
This phenomenon is also found in other languages, like Hebrew, that use the loanword in the same sense. It is worth mentioning that though the word in Hebrew carries the sociopolitical overtones found in its English equivalent, the factors involved in bringing about this semantic shift in Hebrew-speaking societies came at a later time than in English-speaking ones, hence the word’s frequency in Hebrew not picking up until the 1940s. For the Jewish world, this decade was preceded by a period of intense sociopolitical change that culminated in the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the modern Jewish identity that rose out of the ashes of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement of the 19th century from which came the founders of the Zionist state. It was then that the Hebraized term was used to distinguish the modern Jew from those refusing to migrate to the Holy Land, choosing instead to live in ghettos around the world. To the modern Jew, these people constituted a fringe group that held on to what is regarded as the ‘roots’ of their religion, which call for them to dissimilate and live in diaspora, a group that was not compatible with the new ideals of the modern Jewish state.
This table from COHA shows the 10 most common ways ‘radical’ as an adjective has been used in American English from 1810-1900. This indicates that initially the talk about radical change was more of a domestic phenomenon, as it dealt with constitutional change, differences amongst national parties etc. This is best seen in the first American use of radical in a political sense, which dates back to July 1827 and comes from the North American Review, the first literary magazine in the United States:
The shift in the word’s usage from a local to a national level came after the Age of Globalization to describe those outside a particular mold who are viewed as a threat. From 1990-2010, ‘radical Islam’ becomes the most frequent use of the adjective, most notably during George Bush’s administration, under which the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq took place. This period also witnessed an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Republican Party after the September 11 attacks.
Islam in the West, particularly in the United States, is thus perceived as a religion whose core beliefs promote backwardness and justifies violence, or ‘jihad’, against the ‘other’. The term ‘Islamic radicalism’ has been criticized by American orientalists like Bernard Lewis and John Esposito, who regard the expression as an antagonistic misinterpretation of Islam which attempts to denote that violence and backwardness are ‘basic’ attributes of the faith.
On second glance, the word radical seems far more neutral than it had perhaps seemed initially. For example, “radical surgery” to completely remove cancerous tissue, is a very positive usage of the word. In a different fashion, the notion of “radical chic,” as Thomas Wolfe has shown, conveys a type of playfulness among the social elite who are prone to dabbling among the fringes of radical politics in a purely vicarious way.
The journalist and social critic, H.L. Mencken, also saw the concept of the political radical in a positive light. He said, “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
A variation on this theme centers around the cult of Che Guevara, the Latin American revolutionary, which exists in many academic and other social circles in America today. The community-organizing group, Acorn, virtually worships Che, and Breitbart and O’Keefe found posters of him in many Acorn offices while investigating Obama’s ‘roots.’  The relative nature regarding the perception of “radical” is exemplified by the treatment accorded to Guevara. For supporters of revolution, he has become, literally, the poster face for leftist causes. For traditionalists, however, Che represents a self-absorbed destructivism that more than countenances murder.
The word “radical” is more neutral than I had assumed upon starting this project. It is actually a very flexible word that is used in many fields, as noted above. Thus, I have learned that my interpretation of it had been a reflection, quite possibly subconscious, of my own interest in politics, especially with regard to the Middle East, where important political news is made virtually every day and the word “radical” is used predominantly in a very emotionally charged way. However, my newfound realization that the word can also be used in positive contexts shows that many words, and even language itself, says something important about the conditioned nature of all human thought. Indeed, the words we use and the words we hear never exist in a vacuum. By trying to understand the social aspect of language, we understand ourselves better.
 H. L. Mencken, letter to Upton Sinclair (2nd May, 1936)