Has the word terrorist evolved in meaning or context in recent times?

  • It seems that "terrorism" gets abused a lot these days to describe minor acts of unlawfulness, even as minor as littering or spitting on the sidewalk. Comedians are even taking notice with punchlines like this to make this point: "That guy just broke into that house! That's an act of terrorism! Quick! Call the National Guard!" Jun 6, 2011 at 1:22
  • Can you be more specific?
    – JeffSahol
    Jun 6, 2011 at 1:34
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    It may only be in the last decade that US English speakers have had much cause to even consider the meaning of terrorist, but we in the UK have been sadly familiar with the word for far longer, on account of the now thankfully declining activities of the same in Northern Ireland (and sometimes even UK mainland). Jun 6, 2011 at 2:26
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    @dave: We Brits have been frustratingly aware of some US (mis)perceptions of the IRA for many decades, but I think this isn't really the place for such discussions. Jun 6, 2011 at 5:34
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    @dave: Yes the word's always meant the same throughout my life. But to many US speakers it barely even had a real-world referent until a decade ago, so in that sense it probably is changed/changing in some subtle way (perhaps now associating more with "wicked/misguided bad guys", rather than "oppressed & powerless freedom fighters"). Jun 6, 2011 at 11:31

2 Answers 2


Terrorism is the deliberate use of civilian casualties to achieve a political/religious goal. In modern times, the western media (some more than others) have used terrorism to describe any attack against Western interests, be they civilian or military. The Russians have been doing this a lot longer.

Personally, I don't think the word has changed its meaning. Rather, I'd say it has been deliberately misused to paint a skewed picture of a conflict. Unfortunately, this tends to obscure the motivations of the actors. An actor who wishes to attain a certain goal by killing 100 civilians is different than one who wishes to attain a goal in spite of killing 100 civilians. In either case, it would be cold comfort to the 100 civilians.

I'll avoid any examples to avoid being downvoted into oblivion.

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    More generally than the use of civilian casualties is the use of "terror" (fear) as the word suggests. Killing many civilians is just one way to instil this.
    – Noldorin
    Sep 25, 2011 at 14:03
  • True. The IRA did have a love of kneecapping.
    – dave
    Sep 25, 2011 at 19:53
  • Yeah, yet another form... though note the IRA per se was never really a terrorist organisation. It was an army and later insurgency, with a few terrorist factions at later points in history.
    – Noldorin
    Sep 25, 2011 at 20:09
  • @Noldorin - I suspect the 29 civilians killed and 220 injured in the Omagh bombing in 1998 may disagree with that. I am old enough to remember to bombings and killings during the 70s and 80s.
    – dave
    Sep 25, 2011 at 22:24
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    @Noldorin - The question is about the word "terrorism," not the legitimacy of specific organisations or their causes. Just because you agree with the cause does not change terrorism into something different. This was the point of my original answer - the word has been co-opted to mean different things depending upon one's opinion of the conflict in question. I fear this discussion has fallen more into politics and less into language so IMHO we should leave it here.
    – dave
    Sep 25, 2011 at 23:58

The word terrorism actually came from round about 1785–95; terror + -ism.

the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

However, terrorism then meant the practice of using intimidation for producing submission of another person.

The new meaning of terrorism only happened recently, with the rise of "terrorism" for political purposes, not against any one individual.

This is additinal information:

in modern times "terrorism" usually refers to the killing of innocent people[13] by a private group in such a way as to create a media spectacle


In November 2004, a United Nations Secretary General report described terrorism as any act "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act"

  • This could be a much better answer with more detail. Jun 6, 2011 at 2:06
  • Um.. Could you tell me what is lacking? Then I will put it in.
    – Thursagen
    Jun 6, 2011 at 2:07
  • Sure. Nothing wrong with your answer, but more about how the word has changed over the years would make this a complete answer. Stuff like: What caused these changes? Were there intermediate points in between 1795 and the recent overuse of the term for political reasons? Jun 6, 2011 at 4:18

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