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-ism is a suffix in many English words, originally derived from the Ancient Greek suffix -ισμός (-ismós), and reaching English through the Latin -ismus, and the French -isme. It means "taking side with" or "imitation of", and is often used to describe philosophies, theories, religions, social movements, artistic movements and behaviors. The suffix "-ism" is neutral and therefore bears no connotations associated with any of the many ideologies it identifies; such determinations can only be informed by public opinion regarding specific ideologies.
The first recorded usage of the suffix ism as a separate word in its own right was in 1680. By the nineteenth century it was being used by Thomas Carlyle to signify a pre-packaged ideology. It was later used in this sense by such writers as Julian Huxley and George Bernard Shaw. In the United States of the mid-nineteenth century, the phrase "the isms" was used as a collective derogatory term to lump together the radical social reform movements of the day (such as slavery abolitionism, feminism, alcohol prohibitionism, Fourierism, pacifism, Technoism, early socialism, etc.) and various spiritual or religious movements considered non-mainstream by the standards of the time (such as Transcendentalism, spiritualism or "spirit rapping", Mormonism, the Oneida movement often accused of "free love", etc.). Southerners often prided themselves on the American South being free from all of these pernicious "Isms" (except for alcohol temperance campaigning, which was compatible with a traditional Protestant focus on individual morality). So on September 5 and 9, 1856, the Examiner newspaper of Richmond, Virginia ran editorials on "Our Enemies, the Isms and their Purposes", while in 1858 "Parson" Brownlow called for a "Missionary Society of the South, for the Conversion of the Freedom Shriekers, Spiritualists, Free-lovers, Fourierites, and Infidel Reformers of the North" (see The Freedom-of-thought Struggle in the Old South by Clement Eaton). In the present day, it appears in the title of a standard survey of political thought, Today's Isms by William Ebenstein, first published in the 1950s, and now in its 11th edition.
In 2004, the Oxford English Dictionary added two new draft definitions of -isms to reference their relationship to words that convey injustice:
- "Forming nouns with the sense 'belief in the superiority of one—over another'; as racism, sexism, speciesism, etc."
- "Forming nouns with the sense 'discrimination or prejudice against on the basis of—'; as ageism, bodyism, heightism, faceism, lookism, sizeism, weightism, etc."
Merriam-Webster Dictionary declared in December 2015, this word -ism to be the Word of the Year. A suffix is the Word of the Year because a small group of words that share this three-letter ending triggered both high volume and significant year-over-year increase in lookups at Merriam-Webster.com. Taken together, these seven words represent millions of individual dictionary lookups.
For examples of the use of -ism as a suffix:
- "-ism". Oxford English Dictionary online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2014. (subscription required)
- "ism n.". Oxford English Dictionary online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2014. (subscription required)
- Prettejohn, Elizabeth (2012). "The Discovery of Greek Sculpture". The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso. New Directions in Classics Series. 2. London: I.B.Tauris. p. 61. ISBN 9781848859036.
[...] another grand narrative, no less compelling than the familiar succession of 'isms' [...]
- Krieger, Nancy (2020). "Measures of Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism, and Gender Binarism for Health Equity Research: From Structural Injustice to Embodied Harm—An Ecosocial Analysis". Annual Review of Public Health. 41: 37–62. doi:10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040119-094017. PMID 31765272.
- "The Word of the Year is: -ism | Merriam-Webster".
- Today's Isms: Socialism, Capitalism, Fascism, Communism, Libertarianism by Alan Ebenstein, William Ebenstein and Edwin Fogelman (11th ed, Pearson, 1999, ISBN 978-0130257147)
- Isms and Ologies: 453 Difficult Doctrines You've Always Pretended to Understand by Arthur Goldwag (Quercus, 2007, ISBN 978-1847241764) ranges from Abolitionism to Zoroastrianism.
- Isms: Understanding Art by Stephen Little (A & C Black, 2004, ISBN 978-0713670110), one of a series of similar titles including ... Architecture, ... Modern Art, ... Fashion and ... Religions.
- The Ism Book: A Field Guide to Philosophy by Peter Saint-Andre.