Chauvinism is a term of French origin that:

  • in its original meaning, refers to an exaggerated patriotism and a belligerent belief in national superiority and glory.

  • a contemporary use of the term in English is in the phrase male chauvinism. Male chauvinism is the belief that men are superior to women.

Regarding the sexist connotation of the term, according to Etymonline:

  • Meaning extended to "sexism" via male chauvinism (1969).

that appears to be confirmed by the French Wikipedia which says:

  • Dans les années 1960 et 1970, le terme chauvinisme fut employé par le mouvement féministe pour taxer le système familial d'être patriarcal. Dans certaines langues, par exemple l'anglais et l'allemand, le terme a gardé cette signification.

Actually the term appears to have been in use well before the feminist movements of the '60s. The English Wikipedia says:

  • The first documented use of the phrase "male chauvinism" is in the 1935 Clifford Odets play Till the Day I Die

  • also Ngram seems to confirm that the earliest usages of 'male chauvinist' are from the '30s.

Unlike in France and Italy for instance, chauvinist meaning sexist seems to have developed in countries like UK, US and Germany).

My questions:

In what context did the term chauvinist take on the contemporary meaning? Was it an expression imported into UK from Germany or US for instance?

Has the contemporary meaning a wider usage compared to the original one in BrE and in AmE?

  • 1
    "In what context did the term chauvinist take on the contemporary meaning?" That Q ought to be posed to the author of the Wiki article and the others. Patriotism is still the "contemporary" meaning. ODO: oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/chauvinism Without a qualifier or a specific context, the word cannot but mean anything but the authoritative definition according to respected sources.
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 13:12
  • 8
    @Kris I'll bet if you asked 100 Americans what they think chauvinist (with no qualification) means, at least 95 would explain it as sexist, because it's so rarely used outside the context of male chauvinist.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 19:53
  • @Barmar As you correctly noted, when used in the context, it does mean a male chauvinist. (Although your parenthetical "with no qualification" seems to contradict, it does not, because of the "because.") :)
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 5:36
  • 8
    No, that's my point. An American will assume the sexist context, because that's the only way it's ever commonly used.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 5:37
  • 1
    Kris: Barmar didn't say Americans think that without qualification, he meant they think that when the word is presented to them without qualification (that is, bare—no context). Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 23:50

3 Answers 3


The term originates from Nicolas Chauvin, a proud soldier during the French Revolution.

In French, chauvin more or less means "exaggerated patriotism and a belligerent belief in national superiority and glory" as well, with a very strong tint of "proud to be one of us".

For the better part of the 19th and 20th century, that was shorthand for "proud to be one of us males": States and just about everything that mattered in society were in the hands of men. This is where the two definitions you wrote meet at a crossroad IMHO.

A quote from Gustave Le Bon, an influential figure in his time, to illustrate the rampant sexism back then:

"There are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women... recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution, and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man, but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity as for example, a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely." -- Gustave Le Bon, in a "Revue d'Anthropologie", 2nd Series, Vol. 2, 1879.

In light of the above quote, I'm not surprised that (mostly progressive) first- and second-wave feminists made the association between (very conservative) chauvinists and (very conservative) males with a superiority complex.

That "male chauvinism" first appeared in the 1930s comes with little surprise as well: this was in the heat of fascism in Europe, and Le Bon's work on the psychology of crowds arguably inspired fascist theories of leadership.

Barmar probably has it right in the comments with respect to its common understanding: if the term is seldom used outside of "male chauvinism" (and cursory Googling suggests precisely that), "chauvinism" likely evolved to implicitly mean the latter in countries where feminists are common. (I'd be curious to know if Indians understand the unqualified term in the same way.)

  • Interesting, it is strage how the term has not survived in France meaning also sexist , while it developped that connotation in UK, US and Germany. Interesting but horrible extract by Gustave Le Bon.
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 10:42
  • 2
    Yeah, your question got me wondering as well. If Wikipedia is anything to go by, feminists used chauvinism as meaning male chauvinism in France as well during the 1960s and 70s, but the meaning evidently didn't stick. A possible reason may be that the term isn't so common in French. Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 11:01

To understand how the terms chauvinism and chauvinist eventually yielded the phrases "male chauvinism" and "male chauvinist," I think it's important to look not only at the terms' original sense but at the radiating senses in which they were used during the years prior the emergence of "male chauvinism/chauvinist."

Chauvin and early notions of Chauvinism

Nicolas Chauvin may or may not have been real, but his devotion and loyalty to Napoleon and La Grande Armée are unquestionable. One of the earliest mentions of Chauvinism in an English publication appears in a translation of Albert Cler, “The Dilittante,” that appears in Pictures of the French: A Series of Literary and Graphic Delineations of French Character (1840). Cler refers to the Restoration (of the Bonapartes) in France as a time “when Chauvinism had monopolized every thing, not even excepting crockery and pocket-handkerchiefs,” and then either Cler or his English editor adds this footnote:

Chauvin was the pseudo-author of a popular song, consecrated to the glory of the French army.

Benjamin Vincent, Haydn's Dictionary of Dates (1874) offers this alternative note:

CHAUVINISM, a term derived from Chauvin, the principle character in [Eugène] Scribe’s “Soldat Laboureur,” a veteran soldier of the first empire, filled with intense admiration for Napoleon and for all that belonged to him.

The play Le soldat laboureur (from the 1830s) is elsewhere described as lampooning Chauvin; Scribe may not have been the play's author, however.

A Google Books search finds an upsurge in occurrences of Chauvinism starting in the 1860s. One precise account of what the term meant (in English) at that time appears in “The [Franco-Prussian] War)” in Fraser’s Magazine (November 1870):

The political principle to be fortified in this manner was ‘Chauvinism,’ which consists mainly of three elements: contempt of all other nations as inferiors in civilisation and military genius; an arrogant desire to dictate to them not merely in international matters, but even in their domestic affairs; and a fixed determination to tear the treaties of 1815 to shreds, especially those parts relating to the Rhine frontier and Belgium.

Another interesting discussion, from 1901, compares Chauvinism to Jingoism as characteristics of a certain type of French citizen and a certain type of Briton. From Joseph Fitzgerald, Word and Phrase: True and False Use in English (1901):

Jingo and Chauvinist (chauviniste), Jingoism and Chauvinism (chauvinisme), are two pairs of synonyms, Jingo and Jingoism denoting the madly patriotic Briton in his defiance of a world in arms; and Chauvinist and Chauvinism designating the like exaltation of patriotic sentiment in the perfervid Gaul. …

Chauvinist is formed from the name of Nicolas Chauvin, a gallant private soldier in the armies of the first French empire. His devotion to Napoleon knew no bounds; whatever Napoleon did or said was for Chauvin best, wisest, and most beneficent. In a vaudeville, the “Cocarde Tricolor” (“tricolor cockade”) [1831], was introduced a character named Chauvin, whose principal act was to render a song chockfull of patriotic sentiments and glorification of French valor.

In its unadorned form, then, chauvinism in the nineteenth century describes extreme nationalism, often in the specific context of France; and a chauvinist is an adherent or practitioner of chauvinism.

Varieties of chauvinistic experience

Long before dictionaries broadened their definitions of chauvinism to account for senses of the word that didn't have much to do with nationalism and patriotism, however, the word appears in situations where a prefacing adjectives sharply narrows its focus. Most, but not all of them still focused on national patriotism in various forms.

For the period between 1872 and 1936, a Google Books search finds matches for such concepts—quite apart from the nation-specific forms one would expect to see (French, English, American, German, Russian, and the like)—as egotistical chauvinism (July 1872) intellectual chauvinism (1879), religious chauvinism (July 1879), scientific chauvinism (1885), artistic chauvinism (May 1887), philosophical chauvinism (1887), musical chauvinism (June 1888), literary chauvinism (1890), racial chauvinism (December 1900), collegiate chauvinism (1902), linguistic chauvinism (May 1903), medical chauvinism (1903), international chauvinism (1906), primitive chauvinism (1911), East [Coast] chauvinism (November 1912), cultural chauvinism (October 1914), pacifist chauvinism (1917), moral chauvinism (1917), spiritual chauvinism (April 1917), æsthetic chauvinism (1922), proletariat chauvinism (1922), black chauvinism (1924), white chauvinism (1930), financial chauvinism (1931), alien chauvinism (1936), and even communo-chauvinism (1936).

Most of these chauvinisms appear at bottom to refer to something like “venomous hyper-patriotism” as applied to a particular country and to the disadvantage of all other countries, whose productions in that area are despised by the chauvinist. But others, like “East Coast chauvinism,” refer to regional parochialism; still others, like “racial chauvinism,” describe non-national extremism, and some, like “moral chauvinism,” are difficult to make any sense of.

One early dissent from the notion that chauvinism necessarily entailed preoccupation with supposed national superiority is this comment from a review of A. Stopford Brooke, Primer of English Literature, published in The Dublin Review (October 1878):

But there is another kind of Chauvinism, which is an affair of race, not of nation, which is not English, but Teutonic, and the growth of which is not in any way to be desired. This is the Chauvinism which makes Mr. Brooke say (p. 8), “ Otherwise, we English have nothing to do with the old dwellers in our country.”

This view was implicitly taken up in the Communist Party USA’s decades-long campaign against what it called, by 1930, “white chauvinism” in its own ranks.

By then, the words chauvinism and chauvinist had come to be used—especially in leftist terminology—in a much broader sense—something like “irrational, reactionary extremism” and “irrational, reactionary extremist”—which, not being pinned specifically to nationalism, allowed people to associate the terms with political, cultural, and social subjects of all types.

Chauvinism in leftist discourse

According to Carl Ratner, Macro Cultural Psychology (2013), which is cited in Marius Hancu’s very useful answer,

Male chauvinism was coined in the United States by women members of the Communist Party in 1934 [citation omitted]. It was part of the party’s attempt to understand sexist and racist behavior and attitudes as fostered by the exploitation of the capitalist system.

As such, it was a companion notion (though later by four or five years) to the CPUSA’s idea of “white chauvinism”) discussed earlier.

As Josh61's question anticipates, the first instance of “male chauvinism” that a Google Books search finds is from Clifford Odets, Till the Day I Die (1935):

TILLY: Dammit, I’ll do your work.

ERNST: Alone?

TILLY: Why not ?

ERNST: Tempting, but improbable.

TILLY: You and your male chauvinism!

ERNST (with smiling protest) : No, Tilly, no.

TILLY: To-day I'm particularly concerned with you.

The Wikipedia article about Odets reports that he was a member of the Communist Party “for less than a year, between 1934 and 1935,” so he would have been well aware of the contemporaneous slogans and catch-phrases of the CPUSA.

In its traditional sense of “nationalist,” chauvinist seems to have been a favorite polemical word of Lenin, as for example in the (translated) 1918 edition of his “International Socialism,” published in N. Lenin & Leon Trotzky, The Proletarian Revolution in Russia (1918):

We Russians do not as yet realize that the majority of the Zimmerwald International was dominated by [Karl] Kautsky. But this is an absolute fact which can not be minimized and of which Western Europe is fully aware. A chauvinist, an extreme German chauvinist, Heilman, editor of the arch-chauvinist Chemnitz Gazette and contributor of the arch-chauvinist Bell (a Social Democrat, of course, and an ardent partisan of the Social Democratic unity) was compelled to acknowledge in writing that the “center” (or Kautskians) and the Zimmerwald majority were one and the same thing.

In the course of that book Lenin also introduces the concept of “social-chauvinism,” which he thoughtfully defines for the unschooled reader’s benefit:

It is obvious that in its essential traits, politically and intellectually, chauvinism is identical with opportunism. Opportunism placed in the special environment of the present war [the Great War] becomes social-chauvinism. The main idea of opportunism is that of the co-operation of all classes.

So according to Lenin, social-chauvinism is something like forgoing class interests in the name of national (and hyper-nationalist) solidarity. Lenin had elsewhere (in 1914) identified a thread of chauvinism that he referred to (in translation) as “Tsarist—monarchial—chauvinism.”

Because Marxism saw itself as essentially internationalist in scope, focusing on the interests of the proletariat, its exponents tended to view chauvinism as deeply unscientific and regressive, which made it a popular dismissive epithet in a multitude of contexts—race, culture, political ideology, and (eventually) gender. At one point in the 1930s, the Communist Party even floated the notion of “anarchic chauvinism”—presumably a befuddled mindset of extreme nationalist anti-statism—that a member of the Mexican renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s accused himself and his fellow artists (most notably, Diego Rivera) of in May 1934 in New Masses.

Male chauvinism’s second wind

The terms “male chauvinist” and “male chauvinism” never went away after debuting in 1935 (in fact, J. Edgar Hoover mentions "male chauvinism" in his book Masters of Deceit [1961]); but they didn’t emerge from the welter of other specialty chauvinisms until the late 1960s, as this Ngram chart suggests:

The adoption of those terms by advocates of feminism in the late 1960s clearly accounts for this development. However, it isn't easy to isolate the particular instance that triggered its general adoption. Kate Millett uses "male chauvinism" (and "female chauvinism") in her highly influential book Sexual Politics (1970); but before that, Ti-Grace Atkinson uses the term in a December 12, 1969 Life magazine article; Beverly Jones and Judith Brown use it in their pamphlet "Toward a Female Liberation Movement" (1968); and unidentified authors use it multiple times in a 1967 magazine called The Activist. Earlier still is this excerpt from Princeton's University newsletter (1966):

Did one detect perhaps a trace of male chauvinism in that phrase "nice young ladies?" And was male chauvinism one possible result of educating men separately from women?

"Well, I don't think so," smiling. "A lot of Princeton graduates marry girls from Vassar or Smith — colleges like that — and if they do have any male chauvinism they get it hammered out of them pretty quickly!"

One can imagine that the complaint "You just don't get it, do you?" arose out of colloquies like this one.

  • Very good excursus on the topic! So the focal point is the peculiar overtone with which chauvinistic started to be used at he end of the 19th century. From religious, scientific, musical and racial chauvinism to male chauvinism the passage was almost automatic I guess!! Is it safe to assume that the term has mainly, almost exclusive, sexist connotations nowadays both in AmE and BrE?
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 7:20
  • I think it's safe to say that in the popular imagination chauvinist is now closely linked with male chauvinist. But Google Books search results continue to identify new chauvinisms—since 1971 these include "agricultural chauvinism" (1972), "age chauvinism" (1972), "humanist chauvinism" (1972), "environmental chauvinism" (1974), "ecological chauvinism" (1984), "local market chauvinism" (1991), "universalist chauvinism" (1995), "free-market chauvinism" (2002), and "extraterrestrial chauvinism" (2009). So some people are still using chauvinism as a synonym for extremism or bias.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 7:41

You may want to consult these references:

Macro Cultural Psychology: A Political Philosophy of Mind By Carl Ratner

“Male chauvinist” was coined in the United States by women members of the Communist Party in 1934 (Mansbridge ...

Movers and Shakers: A Chronology of Words that Shaped Our Age John Ayto - 2006

The term originated in the US. The noun male chauvinist is first recorded in 1940, but it was not until the late 1960s, when the women's movement hit its stride, that both usages became really widespread. Plain chauvinism, with the implication ...

  • Those are interesting links. You may turn them into a full answer.
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 8:05

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