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Of Racist, Racistov and Leon Trotsky – The Fortnightlyish Word

I enjoy discovering and understanding words almost as much as I enjoy history. Every couple of weeks or so, we’ll pause to explore a particular word or phrase. Sometimes it’ll be one we come across on a daily basis, other times it might be something rarely spoken whose meaning is nearly lost to us.

The Word This Week Is “Racist”

A while back, I was confronted by some well-intended folk who insisted that the term racist was coined by Leon Trotsky. They used this “fact” to “prove” that … well, their goals weren’t incredibly clear. They mentioned brainwashing and children and liberal professors, but honestly, they didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

A bit later, I came across a post on the white supremacist website, Stormfront, which echoed and expounded upon this notion. Leon Trotsky, they say, used the word “racist” in his 1930 memoir The History of the Russian Revolution. The word he used was “racistov” (расистов), which translates to “racism.” The white supremacists argue that you “shall never find an earlier usage of the word ‘racist’ than Trotsky’s coinage of the word here.” 1This is an incredibly icky forum. But if you really need to see it, go here.

The over-long and ranty explanation on Stormfront has been kindly distilled into a meme for your bemusement:

Yeah... but no.
Yeah… but no.

A quick look at the Online Etymology Dictionary states that “racist” was coined in 1932. This is two years after Trotsky’s own use of “racistov.” So what gives? Did Trotsky really invent the word “racism”? Let’s take a look at the larger picture to find out.

But first, here’s the answer: No, of course not.

Antebellum and “Race”

We’ll get back to Trotsky’s use of the term racistov, but first let’s look at the origins of the term racist.

It’s root, race, was originally a 16th century French word It was based upon the Italian razza, both meaning “breed” or “lineage.” It wasn’t until the Victorian era when various languages began adding suffixes to the word.

Racial was the first. Coined in 1854, it was used in describing differences in race. For instance, the magazine Leisure Hour described “northmen” as “barbarous,” and claimed that “we may not be wrong in referring to racial causes for the solution of this problem of contrarities otherwise inexplicable.”

Three years later, the meaning expanded slightly and referred to characteristics of a particular race. Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine out of London noted various “racial diversities” that were “reflected in the character of religion.” 2“racial, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 3 November 2016. Here.

A slightly post-war example can be found in America in 1874. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a short piece about how Californians treated Chinese immigrents, explaining that they “submit to manifestations of racial prejudice very quietly.” 3The Philadelphia Inquirer; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Mon, Aug 9, 1875 – Page 7. Here.


From racial, it did not take long for English speakers to add the suffix “-ism” to the word. This suffix has long been in use, dating back to Latin’s -ismus, and perhaps even to earlier Greek. The first use that I could find of the term racialism was from 1896, though it likely dated to a couple of decades earlier.

In the Christian Recorder, an article about the release of an ambassador to France assured readers that there was not “a degree of racialism” involved in the case. It seems, however, that the writer was differentiating between French and American “races,” and not what we now know as races. 4As printed in Richmond Planet; Richmond, Virginia; Sat, Feb 22, 1896 – Page 3. Here. The OED states that the first use of “racialism” occurred in 1902.

The word racialism, when coined, basically meant what “racism” means today. In 1923, the Christian Advocate urged its readers to look toward Theodore Roosevelt to test their “Americanism,” which was “being pinched into provincialism and racialism by a despicable group of ignorant and intolerant persons [named previously as the Ku Klux Klan].” 5As printed in the The Wellington Daily News; Wellington, Kansas; Wed, Jan 3, 1923 – Page 1. Here.


At the time of is first usage, a member of the Klan would probably not have been called a racialist. It’s earliest showing seems to come from a 1901 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Curiously, it meant simply one who belonged to a particular race. There was no real negative or positive connotation involved.

It must also be remembered, of course, that “race” at the time was often used interchangeably with nationality, especially when it came to language. 6See The Ottawa Journal; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Tue, Mar 7, 1916 – Page 6. Here.

The Pittsburgh Courier ran a piece in 1927 about “black dolls” that were made for black children. “Negro racialists must be encouraged by the growing popularity of black dolls,” it read. “This is as it should be,” the article concluded. “There is no better way to start than by purchasing the child a black doll.” 7My emphasis. The Pittsburgh Courier; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sat, Jan 15, 1927 – Page 14. Here.

When the term racialist (and we can assume racialism) began to have more negative connotations, writers began to add modifiers to the word. For example, we see the use of “extreme racialsts” when describing biologists bent on proving the superiority of the white race. 8See the The St. Louis Star and Times; St. Louis, Missouri; Wed, Sep 19, 1928 – Page 16. Here.


Here is where we finally get to the thick of it. It might be tempting to think that racism and racist are merely shortenings of racialism and racialist. But that’s not exactly how it worked.

Both racialism and racialist have a mutual root in the word racial. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term racial was “formed within English, by derivation.” 9“racial, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 3 November 2016. Here.

Racism and racist, on the other hand, were “modeled on a French lexical item,” according to the OED. 10“racism, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 3 November 2016. Here. The same is stated for “racism.” The “items” in question were the words racisme and raciste. When they were first coined in 1892 and 1902, respectively, both had different meanings than we know today. In France, they were mostly used to denote nationalists.

Though French’s raciste appeared prior to racisme, it was racisme that first made its translation in to English. In 1902, we see what was perhaps the initial usage. A report was published detailing the 20th Annual Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indians, held in October of that year.

In an address delivered to the conference, Col. Richard Henry Pratt stated: “Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary in order to destroy racism and classism.” 11Proceedings of the Twentieth Annual Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indians, 1902, Isabel C. Barrows, ed. (The Lake Mohonk Conference, 1903) 134. Here. You’ll notice that the meaning of racism aligns closely to how it is used today. 12Before you go getting all fuzzy feelings about Col. Pratt, you might want to read this.

Racist – Still No Trotsky

Finally, we arrive at our destination – racist, the term reportedly coined by Leon Trotsky in 1930. There is an issue, however. While the word racist is English, Trotsky wrote only in Russian. His word, racistov (spelled расистов in Russian), was merely slid from the French’s raciste, which predated Trotsky’s usage by several decades.

Ehh... not exactly.
Ehh… not exactly.

So if Trotsky didn’t even use the term racist (let alone invent it) in 1930, when did it come about? The OED holds that the first printed usage came from the Portland Oregonian in their December 14, 1924 edition: “The elections show the Germans at the moment want neither racists nor communists – that is, neither extreme nationalists nor extreme revolutionists.” 13“racist, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 3 November 2016. Here. This citation is nice as it provides a definition for the term – extreme nationalists. In Germany, of course, this meant non-Jews, though the term racist was more of a descriptor than an epithet.

The OED lists several other instances of the term occurring before Trotsky’s publication. It was no fluke nor typo on the Oregon paper’s part – Trotsky simply did not invent the word. By 1932, when The History of the Russian Revolution was translated into English, the English word racist had been in use for nearly a decade.

Trotsky, like most before him, was using the word расистов not in reference to what we now hold race to be, but more to nationality. This kept in line with the original French meaning. Specifically, he was referring to “Slavophiles” who he refers to as “Racists” (complete with the capitalization and quotation marks). 14Leon Trotsky The History of the Russian Revolution (Haymarket Books, 2008) 6. Here.

Racism and Racist Today

Our definitions for racism and racist have changed quite drastically since the days of Trotsky. That’s just how language works. While the white supremacists at Stormfront might insist that it’s a Leftist plot to foster white guilt, it’s really just that the definitions for racialism and racialist were carried over to racism and racist as the two earlier words faded into obscurity.

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Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.