terror, terrorism, terrorist

Terrorism is not simply a modern phenomenon; it’s existed since time immemorial. But it wasn’t until the French Revolution that it was given its name.

Its root, terror, dates to the fifteenth century and is a borrowing from the Anglo-Norman terrour and the Latin terror. Its first citation in English in the OED is from a life of St. George written c. 1480:

for he wes anerly þat ane
þat of criste þe treutht had tan,
þat but rednes ore terroure
of goddis son wes confessoure.

(For he was only that one that the truth of Christ had taken, that for shame and terror of God’s son he was a confessor.)

So, for several centuries terror had the basic meaning that we know today, fear.

The political use of the term came with the post-revolutionary Jacobins, whose rule of France in 1793–94 is known as The Terror. This label appears in English by 1798 in the writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone, who equated the depredations of the Jacobins with the English who were oppressing Ireland:

The system of police (if police is what it can be called) is far more atrocious than ever it was in France, in the height of the Terror.

So, terror became associated with violent actions of a state in the oppression of its people. For instance, the magazine Encounter said this in July 1978:

Anyone who cannot see and appreciate the true difference between Russia today and Russia at the height of the Stalinist terror has a very poor idea of one or other of these phenomena.

This sense continues to this day.

But terrorism has always been used in a related, but different sense. It’s the use of violence by a non-state actor to achieve a political end. Sometimes terrorism is sanctioned by a government and carried out by paramilitary forces. Again, this a borrowing from French, although modern French this time: terrorisme. The first use of terrorism in English is by Thomas J. Mathias in his 1796 satirical poem The Pursuits of Literature:

John Thelwall [...] pointed out the defects of all the ancient governments of Greece, Rome, Old France, &c.; and the causes of rebellion, insurrection, regeneration of governments, terrorism, massacres, or revolutionary murders.

Unfortunately in its division of senses, the OED does not distinguish between state and non-state actors. So its unclear in this citation which is being referred to.

Roger Graef in his 1989 Talking Blue: The Police in Their Own Words uses the word to refer to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, then the paramilitary police force in Northern Ireland. In this case, Graef is associating terrorism with the Provisional IRA, a non-state actor:

In Northern Ireland two decades of terrorism have produced battle fatigue in the RUC.

The New York Times also uses it in this way in a 2009 article:

Terrorism has no place in Islamic doctrine.

Terrorist follows a similar trajectory. It first appears as a synonym for the Jacobins and their supporters. From the Courier and Evening Gazette of 10 November 1794:

The Section Lepelletier, formerly the firmest in support of the Jacobin Society, declared eternal war against the terrorists and intriguers.

By 1806 terrorist was being used to apply to non-state actors. From Francis Plowman’s Historical Review of the State of Ireland of that year:

But the affected zeal for the constitution, the artful misrepresentation of facts, and the undaunted fierceness of those terrorists, had too long usurped the power of the viceroy, and abused the confidence of the British cabinet.


Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, Sep. 2011, s. v. terror, n., terrorism, n., terrorist, n.

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