Words ending –ism were taboo when I was a sixth former; and during the decades when he edited The Sower,* Francis Drinkwater asked his writers to abstain from –ism words, as promoting confusion of thought.
He quoted Metternich, who said in a letter of 1852 to Donoso Cortes that he deplored the use of isms, especially when he saw them attached to some noun that already expressed a quality. And so the concepts of reason, sentiment and community were in danger of being corrupted by coinages such as rationalism, sentimentalism and communism.†
The OED tries to reduce the –ism formation to some kind of pattern and rationality, but it is a difficult task. People have been carelessly putting -ism and –ist on to the end of anything they fancied, or didn’t fancy, for hundreds of years.
First, the OED explains, there is the noun of action (usually accompanying a verb ending in –ize). It names a process, or a completed action, or its result. This includes aphorism, baptism, criticism, embolism, exorcism, magnetism, mechanism, organism, ostracism, syllogism, synchronism. These are Greek formations, but plagiarism (from Latin) falls semantically into the same group.
Then come the words in which -ism expresses the action or conduct of a class of persons, as heroism, patriotism, despotism, vandalism, fascism.
There are words that form ‘the name of a system of theory or practice, religious, ecclesiastical, philosophical, political, social, etc., sometimes founded on the name of its subject or object, sometimes on that of its founder.’ Examples include Calvinism, Catholicism, Chartism, Congregationalism, Conservatism, Epicureanism, Judaism(which dates back to about 1425), Platonism, Positivism, Presbyterianism, Protestantism, Puritanism, Puseyism, Quakerism, Quietism, Radicalism, Ritualism.
Separately from these, it categorizes words that are ‘more of the nature of class-names or descriptive terms, for doctrines or principles’: agnosticism, altruism, animism, atheism, egoism, egotism, empiricism, evangelism, fanaticism, feminism, heathenism, hedonism, idealism, imperialism, paganism, polytheism, realism, romanticism, sansculottism, scepticism, stoicism, theism, universalism.
Why the total prohibition, when some of these words do describe, without confusion, something that has clear boundaries? It may be that both Drinkwater and Metternich were objecting, not to the –ism formation as such, but to the way such words can be used—for propaganda, or to express contempt.
Next post: Ladders.
*A quarterly devoted to Christian education
†F.H.Drinkwater, Educational Essays, Burns Oates, 1951, p.10