Glossary: Suddenly fascism is back on everyone's lips

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If you look closely at the walls of city buildings you will sometimes see a small sign declaring that a particular piece of pavement does not constitute a right of way. As I understand it, this is to prevent the public taking possession by stealth. The sign means: Yes, you can use it for now, but we may want this patch of pavement back someday. We may have a special purpose for it and we won't want any nonsense from you about how you've always gone this way to the shops.

The success of the Nationalist Alliance in the Italian elections suggests that we may need something similar for words. In most press reports they have been described as Fascists (or neo-Fascists by more careful journalists) - but fascist, famously, does not mean what it did in 1922 when Mussolini founded his party. It is a word so well-trodden that it entered common ownership many years ago.

In The Good English Guide, Godfrey Howard points out that after the 1991 Communist coup in Russia, the cry of protestors on the streets was 'No to fascism' - an indication that years of Soviet truespeak had hammered1 the word into a powerful synonym for 'enemy'. In Spain, Communists used to call their Socialist rivals 'social fascists' and in the United States, Rush Limbaugh, the far-Right radio ranter, denounces his female opponents as 'feminazis', which is a variation of the trope. Were I, God forbid, to make an observation about Mr Limbaugh's lard-butt physique, someone else might well denounce me for 'body- fascism'.

The word fascism, as every schoolboy used to know, derives from the fasces, a bundle of rods tied around an axe which served as a badge of office in imperial Rome. But Mussolini had other sources to draw on, which reflect the current political confusion of usage.

His background was in the Italian socialist movement and he must have had in mind the Sicilian Fasci dei lavoratori, a labour movement of the 1890s. In Italian fascio meant assemblage or group, a connotation of common purpose that blended usefully with the appeal to Imperial history.

The first trespasser, according to the OED, was Nancy Mitford in 1940 ('Luke was an awful old fascist'), but soon everyone was at it. George Orwell tried to act as a security guard, protesting at the invasion of day-trippers who were eroding the word's clarity of purpose, but it was a lost cause. The battle was over by the end of the Sixties, when the word had just become a cobblestone, to be hurled from a crowd at anyone in a position of authority, from milk-monitor to chief of police.

Now that we need to use fascist again, and to know with some accuracy2 what it means, we will have to contend with its long public appropriation. But it may be that time, or fashion, has solved the problem anyway. When Rik Mayall was reduced to an impotent bleat of 'fascist]' in the television series The Young Ones in the early Eighties, it was evidence of his mental impotence, of how hopelessly outmoded he was. And while I imagine somebody must have shouted 'fascist' at an opponent in Parliament, it hasn't happened recently, according to the Speaker's office.

It would, I think, constitute 'abusive and insulting language likely to cause disorder', so would probably be ruled unparliamentary in any case, but it's surprising that one of those MPs whose hobby it is test the Speaker's limits3 hasn't tried it out.

Perhaps they just realise how ludicrously dated it would sound. Just as an Italian party returns to claim its nominal territory (or rather to have commentators do it for them), the public has decided to move on. The description of National Alliance supporters as Fascists now hovers somewhere between abuse and literal description and it may not be long before an elected politician even puts it on his letterhead.

I doubt if it will ever be possible, though, to use it with the blithe offhandedness of the journalist who wrote in 1923 that 'Fascism in Germany will never be more than one of several factors'. Too many people have walked this way.

1 From the Old English hamar. A possible connection with the Russian kamen, stone, suggests it may have meant a stone weapon.

2 From the Latin accuratus, performed with care. Curare, to care for.

3 From limes, a boundary, a frontier.