Language within a language
When I lived in Turkey, I began to learn some political language in Turkish, by capturing vocabulary from conversations, photographing and analyzing election billboards, and talking about political resistance with friends. Now I often wonder what it’s like for nonnative speakers to hear English political language, from the spectrum basics of ‘left’ and ‘right’, to the names of political parties, to the term ‘protest march’. It may be interesting for both native and nonnative speakers to delve into where some of these terms came from.
Terms and their origins
Left vs. Right
The political terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ come from the French Revolution (1789-1799) when those in the legislative assembly who opposed the monarchy and supported a revolution sat on the left, and those who supported the traditional institutions of the Old Regime sat on the right.
Reaching further back, the etymology of ‘left’ as a side comes from Old English lyft meaning ‘weak; foolish’, almost certainly related to right-hand dominance. ‘Right’ comes from Old English riht meaning ‘good, proper, fitting, straight.’
Around 1800, people in English began using the term ‘liberal’, from the French libéral, for someone who favoured freedom, democracy, and social change. It may come from Proto-Indo-European *leudh-ero-, ‘belonging to the people.’
As a political term, again it goes back to the French Revolution, in reference to those who opposed revolution. The word itself comes from Latin conservare ‘to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard.’
Didn’t plan to include this, but can’t help it! Coming from Irish toruighe ‘plunderer’, this word was used in the 1500s as a derogatory term for Irish Catholics dispossessed of land, some of whom became outlaws. Later it was applied to supporters of a Catholic duke in England, then colonial loyalists in America. Now it gets swapped out colloquially in Canada for the Conservatives.
The name for this form of radical nationalism based on a totalitarian one-party state came into English in 1921, from Benito Mussolini’s partito nazionale fascista. The name came from the Italian fasci referring to ‘groups of men organized for political purposes’ and related to fascio meaning ‘group’ or ‘bundle’.
The Fascists came to associate their title with the ancient Roman fasces – a bundle of rods tied around an axe – which was carried before a Roman magistrate as a symbol of authority, as the rods could be used for whipping and the axe for beheading. Interestingly, fasces may come from Old English bæst, ‘inner bark of the linden tree’.
Beginning the mid-1400s, with the meaning ‘to declare or state formally or solemnly’, this comes from Latin protestari. The original sense is preserved in ‘to protest one’s innocence’. Composition: pro– ‘forth, before’ + testari ‘testify’, from testis ‘witness’. It picked up the ‘statement of disapproval’ meaning in the 1700s, and the ‘expressing of dissent’ in the 1950s with the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Apparently the first record of a ‘protest march’ is from 1959.