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A zealot is a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.

I have never seen this word used with positive connotation, but could it (without causing raised eyebrows)? For example, “Gandhi was a zealot and should be admired by all who believe in non-violence.”

Also, do “zealous” and “zeal” carry the same connotation as “zealot”?

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Your example is a bad one, since the generally-held view is "Gandhi was a pragmatist" (pretty much the opposite of a zealot). But obviously to many people, a zealot who endorses the same ideals as they do is someone to be admired. A "a true zealot", for example, is often used in approving contexts. So I think this is Not Constructive. –  FumbleFingers Nov 24 '12 at 15:06
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The example might not conform with “generally-held” views, but how does that make my whole question not constructive? –  The Third Man Nov 24 '12 at 15:26
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Sorry - perhaps I should have posted the first sentence as a separate comment. I didn't mean to imply the example itself makes the question bad. But although - as you obviously know - zealot is usually used disparagingly, that doesn't mean no-one (apart from the zealots themselves) ever approves of their attitudes. And as I hope my "true zealot" link shows, such people can happily use the word in a positive sense. Which makes the question effectively "subjective". –  FumbleFingers Nov 24 '12 at 16:06
    
Wordnik is a good place to research questions like this, owing to long stream of usage examples on the right-hand side of the page. Wordnik's entry for zealot includes one or two examples that might be considered neutral or slightly positive, although most usages are highly unflattering. My recommendation would be to use it in a positive manner only sparingly and with caution, because it could be easily misconstrued to be insulting. –  J.R. Nov 25 '12 at 10:12

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Zealot, in my experience, is usually used in a negative context, but doesn't have to be.

One quote from the link FumbleFingers quoted in his comment above shows how it can be used in a positive fashion without any apparent controversy:

Your goal should be to transform your satisfied customer into a true zealot for your firm.

And, of course, from someone sharing the same views as the zealot, it can be a good thing indeed:

A true zealot does not do only what is according to the law... he is entirely concerned with the one good thing which is solid, true and eternal.

Zealous and zeal are more often used positively. Again, this is just in my experience. I'm sure there are some for whom the words bring to mind the "zealot".

Zealous representation is characterized by enthusiasm an fervent dedication on the part of the attorney.

He must be zealous in seeking out knowledge.

He had a zeal for learning.

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On reflection perhaps I was overzealous in voting to close as Not Constructive. Everything here seems perfectly accurate and well-expressed, so given the current top-rated answer starts with "no it can't", I think I'd better upvote this one in the interests of balance! Just about any supposedly "negative" word can be treated approvingly in the right context - one has only to think of Mellors in Lady Chatterly's Lover, who's in no doubt that c*nt's good –  FumbleFingers Nov 24 '12 at 17:32
    
@FumbleFingers: You might be referring to my answer, which says "not for me it can't" (an overtly subjective response that clearly expresses my personal bias but not everyone's feelings about the word), not "no, it can't" (an absolute assertion that it's never possible under any circumstances, something I would almost never say). But a minor misparaphrase like that is insignificant. I get your point. –  user21497 Nov 25 '12 at 14:03
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@Bill: We all have our personal "prejudices" - personally, I'm inclined to lump evangelist Christians in with Muslim suicide bombers, in that they all seek to influence others because of their outmoded belief systems. And it's probably fair to say both evangelist and zealot have equally strong religious connotations, so they're both pretty much equally negative to me - but obviously that's not the case for millions of others. –  FumbleFingers Nov 25 '12 at 14:35

Not for me, it can't: All zealots are "over the top".

But being zealous (that is, having the fervor or ardent desire to do something) can be, in some circumstances, admirable, especially when it involves one's own survival in a hostile environment or helping others survive without regarding the consequences to oneself.

The synonyms for zealous range from mild ("eager") to overweening ("fanatic" and "rabid"). Even passion, which has generally positive connotations, can be overdone and fall into the category of zealotry.

In general, I'd avoid any form of the Z-word if you're trying to praise rather than condemn someone or a group of someones.

Gandhi may have been passionate about a few things, but I wouldn't call him a "zealot". He was committed to a cause, yes, but that alone didn't make him a zealot. Neither was Nelson Mandela, also passionate about a similar cause, a zealot.

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Starting with the base word, zeal:

The AHDEL gives a definition which is positive if anything (rather than pejorative):

Enthusiastic devotion to a cause, ideal, or goal and tireless diligence in its furtherance.

Collins adds the pejorative flavour:

Fervent or enthusiastic devotion, often extreme or fanatical in nature, as to a religious movement, political cause, ideal, or aspiration.

My own take is that the connotations are positive rather than negative.

Zealous has the same effect on my sensibilities. At least one version of the English Bible contains 'zealous for good works'.

Zealot, however, perversely seems to connote unwarranted fanaticism. Simon was a zealot before his conversion (and a Bible interpreter I know of suggested that that's how two swords could mysteriously appear among the disciples just prior to the Crucifixion).

It's not unknown for closely related words to have very different connotations - contrast:

Thank you for preparing this excellent scheme of work.

I wouldn't trust him - he's a real schemer.

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Simon's "zealotry" is controversial. The Greek zelotes, may represent a mistranslation of Hebrew term signifying "of Cana", or it may represent Simon's participation in the revolutionary group Josephus calls "the Zealots" (which may or may not have existed before the Great Revolt) or it may simply mean "zealous [follower of Christ]". –  StoneyB Nov 24 '12 at 16:09

You can use zealot positively — you can with a little ingenuity use just about anything just about any way you like, to telling rhetorical effect. But be very very careful, recalling how badly Barry Goldwater’s bold campaign theme (paraphrased by Harry Jaffa from Cicero) backfired:

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Zeal and zealous are perhaps less dangerous, but never entirely safe. Think for instance of Ben Jonson's name for one of his obnoxious Puritans, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy.

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A modern parallel to Ben Jonson's Zeal-of-the-Land Busy is William Zeal-of-the-Lord Collins in the mini-series Lost in Austen. (Austen's Pride and Prejudice doesn't specify Collins' middle name, but the mini-series does so in Episode 2.) –  jwpat7 Nov 24 '12 at 20:42

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