These -isms are intent on word domination

William Hartston ponders the masochism of naturism, Zoroastrianism and Euro-scepticism
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The Independent Online
This has not been a good century for -isms. Collins Dictionaries have been comparing the frequency of usage of various words ending in the suffix "-ism" in its "Bank of English" - samples of the written and spoken language, adding up to 323 million words and growing at a rate of 3 million words a month. There are now, according to Collins, well over 1,000 true -isms in the language, from ageism to Zoroastrianism, from paganism (which first appeared in the 15th century) to that typical conceit of the Nineties, Euro-scepticism. The evidence suggests that the modern -isms are challenging the old for linguistic superiority.

The three most common -isms of all are criticism, tourism and mechanism, of which only tourism (a word that first appeared in 1811) could be held to be a proper -ism, in the sense of a theory or doctrine. The word "ism" itself was coined by Horace Walpole in 1789, by which time the language had sufficient examples for everyone to know what he was talking about.

Before 1600, we had only paganism, Satanism, atheism, barbarism, Judaism and Christianism, but the 17th century saw -isms extended beyond major belief systems into words that reflected the style in which a belief was held: cynicism, dogmatism, empiricism, fanaticism and fatalism. The more idealistic 18th century brought us heroism, patriotism and idealism, as well as cannibalism, egotism and favouritism. Interestingly, we also had 35 years of optimism, which first appeared in 1759, before pessimism hit the language in 1794.

The 19th century brought a more critical tinge to anything labelled an -ism, as the language was flooded with such words as agnosticism, alcoholism, capitalism, Communism, exhibitionism, extremism, feudalism, hedonism, imperialism, masochism, narcissism and sadism. Among those we also see, for the first time, real people immortalised as -isms: the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher Masoch.

That, sadly, is a trend that has continued throughout this century. Collins have now monitored it with a list of the "Top 25 People and Their -Ism". On the basis of frequency of usage, Buddha comes top, ahead of Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher. Behind Buddhism, Marxism and Thatcherism come chauvinism and Stalinism, with sadism just ahead (as one might expect) of masochism. Majorism, in 17th place, is two places ahead of Reaganism, and Blairism only just squeezes into the list, in 23rd place.

Putting these in their places on the complete list of -isms, however, shows Blairism level with Euro-scepticism, Majorism level with obscurantism, and Thatcherism on the same rank as baptism.

But what of the future for -isms? The first decade of the 20th century gave us Pointillism, cubism and expressionism as well as pacifism; the 1910s brought us behaviourism, functionalism and defeatism; followed by environmentalism, Fascism and voyeurism in the Twenties. Racism, surrealism and escapism summed up the Thirties, to be followed by existentialism in 1941 and consumerism in 1944. It was only in 1961, however, that the British Sun Bathing Association voted to substitute "naturism" for "nudism".

More recently we have had ageism and monetarism - both first sighted in 1969 - sexism, in 1968, and Thatcherism, in 1979.

Enough of all this wordism! This -ismism has gone too far, as you will quickly see if you take a glimpse into some of the not-yet-in-the-dictionary items found lurking in the Bank of English database. For the latest -isms include "so-what-ism", meaning apathy or indifference (spotted in The Observer in 1994), "techno-fetishism", an obsession with new technology (seen in the London Review of Books in 1993), and "non-ism" (seen in The Independent in 1990) meaning an extreme form of self-denial, refusing meat, caffeine, alcohol, drugs and sex; and then there's anarcho-capitalism, and Bennism and ...

Stop. Surely it is time we restricted the good old -ism suffix to its original, high-minded ideal, its old traditional-ism. Let us call for an -ism schism, for these neologisms need bringing back to basics.

"Ah," say the wise men from Collins, "we think you must be thinking of basism; referring to John Major's back to basics policy (first sighted in Scotland on Sunday, 1993)."