I have noticed a trend going back at least a decade of using the word racist (and for that matter sexist) as an adjective. This doesn't appear to fit the pattern of -ism words, which become -ist when applying to a follower of a belief and -istic to form the adjective.


A distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement.

The storm of conflicting opinions centers [sic] on the Mrs. Thatcher who became a symbolic figure, even an 'ism'.


A follower of a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement:

You can’t be born an '-ist'.


A suffix of adjectives (and in the plural, of nouns from adjectives) formed from nouns ending in -ist and having reference to such nouns, or to associated nouns in -ism (deistic; euphuistic; puristic). In nouns, it usually has a plural form ( linguistics).

This is now a widespread usage and in fact the top three search results on EL&U stack exchange all use racist as an adjective; 1, 2, 3, search.

Why have certain words' adjective forms been ignored in favour of their 'follower' forms?

Furthermore, why do we still use words like artist and artistic, have they just still been around in popular culture while the others have been taken over by the -ist form?

Edit: Thanks to @sumelic for a list of -ist words, which helps put this in context and shows that this trend goes back well over a decade

  • 3
    You're confusing noun compounds with adjective-noun compounds. Nouns can modify other nouns and frequently do. Racist language is a noun compound, and both words are nouns; racist is not an adjective. And racistic is so rare as to be irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why the original Latin "Eight Parts of Speech" didn't distinguish between adjectives and nouns. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 15:35
  • Here's a related question, but I don't think the answer explains very much: Why are some “-ist” suffixed words used as the adjective form over the more common “-istic”?
    – herisson
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 16:20
  • 1
    FYI, both "racist" and "sexist" are considered adjectives as well as nouns (source: Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged). Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 16:25
  • 2
    An example like "racist language", is not a noun compound; "racist" and "language" are two separate words consisting of an attributive dependent + head forming a composite nominal (or NP). It should be distinguished from a morphological compound noun like, say, "blackbird" and "handyman". Note that only items written as single words (possibly hyphenated) qualify as compounds. Examples like "racist language", "television screen", "gas cooker" etc. are composites, not compounds.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 17:00
  • 1
    @JohnLawler Perhaps you parse "racist language" as "language of racist people", but to flatly state that parsing it as "language that is racist" is "wrong" is completely unjustified. Commented Dec 27, 2020 at 22:13

2 Answers 2


The hypothesis that these are attributive nouns and not attributive adjectives

One relatively common viewpoint seems to be that racist and sexist, when used to modify a following noun, are actually "attributive nouns" (or possibly appositive nouns). I.e. "a racist tradition" means "a tradition associated with racists" in the same way that "a family tradition" means " a tradition associated with families/with a family." Somebody mentions this explanation in this Reddit thread: Misogynist vs misogynistic?

If true, this would indeed explain the lack of the adjective suffix -ic in this particular context. However, there are many other contexts where racist and sexist are unambiguously used as adjectives. We can't say "a tradition that is family" but I can say "a tradition that is racist." We can't say "the most family tradition I've ever heard of" but I can say "the most racist tradition I've ever heard of." Same goes for sexist.

We can use racist as a predicate without an article: "That's racist!" If "racist" were a noun in this sentence, it would have to be a non-count noun of some kind meaning something like "racially prejudiced stuff." But it doesn't seem to work that way.

So I don't see any other option than to accept that for people like me, racist and sexist are indeed truly adjectives (at least in some cases). And once we've established that they can be adjectives, I don't know of any reason why they wouldn't be able to be used as attributive adjectives before nouns.

Other adjectives (maybe) ending in -ic

Here is a list of other -ist words that have been called adjectives (from OneLook Dictionary Search).

Hot Licks pointed out in a comment a few words like this that seem even older, such as Methodist, Baptist and nationalist. Searching Google Books, I found a few examples of "Baptist" being used as a predicate in an apparently adjectival fashion from the 1800s:

But it also is Baptist all the same. ("Gleanings from the German Field," by Rev. J.C. Grimmell, from The Baptist Home Mission Monthly, Volume 9)


The book is very sour, very sour indeed–it is Baptist! (On a Review of Mr. Noel's Work on Baptism," by Philalethes, in "Correspondence" of The Baptist Magazine for 1849, Vol. 41)

Interestingly, I was not able to find any examples of "very Baptist" from this century where "very" was used as an adverb. There are more recent examples, though:

It was a very American book and a very Baptist book, and it went to the heart of Mullins's religious and theological concerns. ("Edgar Young Mullins," by Fischer Humphreys, in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, edited by Timothy George and David S. Dockery)

Also, I did find an example from around 1888 of "very Methodist," where apparently "very" is an adverb and "Methodist" is an adjective:

They laid their arms across each other's shoulders in a very Methodist way ("Au Large," George W. Cable, The Century, Volume 35)

So it seems that this overall phenomenon of "-ist" words being used as adjectives is more than a century old.

Many of these words actually do have explicit adjectival counterparts ending in -istic. Unfortunately, I don't have a good explanation for why others do not. The Oxford English Dictionary's entry on "-ist" merely states:

Many of the nouns in -ist give rise to adjectives in -istic suffix, -istical suffix; but words of modern formation are to a great extent used adjectively unchanged, as in the royalist party, a Bonapartist plot, nonconformist principles.

Possible origins of "racist" as an adjective

Influence from French

I was sorry to see a recent answer to this question was deleted, as I thought it had some valuable information. It mentioned that the earliest use of "racist" cross-linguistically was in French. Basically, it seems that the word racist as an adjective may come from the French word raciste. This word could already be used as a noun or an adjective in French. The reason seems to be that in general, French words ending in -iste don't have to receive a suffix to be used as adjectives. For example, the French adjective corresponding to English "moralistic" is moraliste, according to WordReference Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary considers "racist" to have been used as an adjective in English since early on: its first citation for the noun use is in 1924, while the first for the adjective use is from 1927, only 3 years later. This supports the idea that racist may have come into English as both noun and adjective, rather than starting out as a noun and gradually coming to be used as an adjective.

However, the three earliest OED citations for "racist" as an adjective are unfortunately technically ambiguous, as they are examples where the word modifies a following noun, and so conceivably "racist" in these quotes could be seen as an attributive noun. The earliest OED citation that provides an unambiguous case of the word being used as an adjective is actually from 1979. Somebody might be able to find earlier examples on Google Books, though.

Reinterpretation of the noun in compound words

Even if racist actually was originally only used as a noun in English, it seems like it could easily come to be used as an adjective because of the aforementioned ambiguity between the "attributive noun + noun" structure and the "adjective + noun" structure.

Many of the words ending in -ic refer to followers of some school of thought or people who take some particular position. And it's natural for words like this to be used as attributive nouns. To me, it seems possible that the adjectival usage evolved from earlier attributive-noun uses. (Something similar seems to have happened to the word fun, which is an adjective for many people today.)

Some kind of semantic difference from other -ic words

It might be relevant that racist and sexist both group together in meaning as well as form; unlike most -ist words, their main meaning currently is "prejudiced based on [race or sex]." Another similar but less common word is classist: it would be interesting to see how many people use it as an adjective as well.

  • 2
    The fact that you can use "racist" and "sexist" predicatively ("Ed is racist/sexist") is evidence that that they can be adjectives. And of course they can be modified by "very" like many other adjectives: "Ed is very racist/sexist".
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 17:21
  • Fun is a good spot, this phenomenon seems to be every where. Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 9:27
  • While baptist does have some adjectival usage, another example you give, nationalist, is dwarfed by nationalistic when it comes to adjectives: books.google.com/ngrams/… Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 21:42
  • I'd also like to add that Methodist and Baptist as adjectives are very rarely used, certainly not by the general public. The way that their Ngrams charts spike sporadically suggests that neither have felt wide-spread use. In the interests of balance I would like to point out that Baptistic is pretty much non-existent, but Methodistic is in use (and my iPod doesn't suggest it as a spelling error). Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 21:51
  • I'm not sure I completely agree with this answer, but I have given it the bounty simply not to waste it and since you have clearly put research effort into it. In the end you might be right; racist could just be an 'attributive noun' or simply an inexplicable adjective. Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 13:00

This doesn't appear to fit the pattern of -ism words, which become -ist when applying to a follower of a belief and -istic to form the adjective.

I can't think of any -isms for which -ist doesn't form the adjective (other than cases such as "baptism" where the -ism isn't a reference to a school of thought).

atheism -> atheist
fascism -> fascist
communism -> communist
socialism -> socialist
sexism -> sexist

It's true that people will use, for instance, "fascistic", but that seems to be from a false analogy to words such as "artistic", where a noun that ends in -ist is turned into an adjective by adding -ic. While "artist" is only a noun, "fascist" is both a noun and adjective. There are some words such as "theism", "chauvinism", and "jingoism" for which the -istic form may be more common than the -ist form for the adjective, but both are valid. "Atheistic" seems to be influenced by theism -> theistic and/or artist -> artistic, but given that it seems to be used primarily by theists (and chauvinistic ones at that), it's likely the former.

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