Radical politics, radish and reform: a footnote on the limitations of the English language


Yesterday evening, in the company of wonderful folk, question arose as to the origin of the term ‘radical’. This question arose in the context of a conversation about ‘just how few’ terms there are left nowadays, to describe or refer to (people with) radical politics. Terms like ‘liberal’, for example, or ‘progressive’ have either been appropriated by, or are now somehow associated with, people with conservative ideas or politics.

But what of ‘radical’? From whence did this term derive? Suggestions included 1) from the notion of ‘root’ as in ‘going to the root or core’ of something; 2) from ‘radish’ (“because I like radishes”), and; 3) from something with something to do with the idea of ‘radiate’. We were all near-ishly on the right track. None of us, however, were terribly pleased with what we found.

It just so happens that the term ‘radical’ is first recorded is use from the late 14c in a medieval philosophical sense, from Late Latin radicalis (‘of or having roots’), from Latin radix (‘root’), derived from late Old English rædic, from Latin radicem (‘root’), thought to be derived from the Proto-Indo-European base, wrad-  (‘twig, root’). (Trying very hard not to make joke about root in plural form.).

Of note was the fact that the term ‘radical’ was used in the 1650s to mean ‘going to the origin, essential’. The term was first used in a political sense in 1802… when it was used in the political sense of ‘reformist’ (via notion of ‘change from the roots’). Reformist!? Reformist.


“So can we still use the term – ‘radical’ I mean – would you still use it d’you think?” 

“Reformist!? Radical!?”


It was a fleetingly sad moment in an otherwise celebratory history of indulging in etymology. Thankfully we were all drinking beer so neither lingered, nor paused to reflect for very long.


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Filed under General personal writings, Incidental

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