There are various applications of the word "radical" in its adjectival form. Such as, radical feminists, radical politicians, radical ideas, radical terrorists etc. Nowadays, it is widely used to refer to political groups to slam them. My question is, what are its different meanings in different contexts as an adjective?

The oxford dictionary defines radical as:

advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social reform; representing or supporting an extreme section of a political party.

But media often refers to politicians who aren't advocating any change (e.g. Iranians, Saudis, Iraqis). Why and how does that make sense? How is a Muslim scholar from Iran or Saudi Arabia radical when they aren't advocating any change and in fact are trying to protect their own system?

  • Great question and welcome to English Language & Usage. Would you mind sharing with us what your research has come up with? Perhaps you could edit your post and add a dictionary definition of "radical" that puzzles you.
    – rajah9
    Sep 27, 2016 at 12:12
  • @rajah9 I updated my question. Sep 27, 2016 at 12:30
  • 'But [the] media often refers [sic] to politicians who aren't advocating any change (e.g. Iranians, Saudis, Iraqis). Why and how does that make sense?' Can't they be non-radical? Though many cars are blue, if I mention 'cars' it doesn't imply I'm thinking of blue ones. Sep 27, 2016 at 16:19
  • You need to clarify your question. You say "But media often refers [sic] to politicians who aren't advocating any change", but you don't say how the media do this. What terms do they use??
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 27, 2016 at 23:54

3 Answers 3


The word radical has a life outside of politics.

The Oxford Dictionary (not the OED) lists four distinct senses:

  1. relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough; "a radical overhaul of the existing regulatory framework".

  2. characterised by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive; "the city is known for its radical approach to transport policy"

  3. relating to the root of something, in particular a number or quantity [MATHEMATICS] of the root of a number or quantity - denoting or relating to the roots of words [MUSIC] belonging to the root of a chord [BOTANY} of the root of a stem base of a plant*.

  4. [usually as exclamation] NORTH AMERICAN INFORMAL very good, excellent: "Okay, then Seven o'clock.Radical!

The OP's question seemed to dwell more on the political interpretation of radical. Various groups have been called radicals across history. For example in Britain, in the late-eighteenth century those members of the Whig party who were sympathetic to the ideals of the French Revolution were known as Radicals. The term continued to be applied to left-wing Liberals in the days prior to the arrival of a Socialist movement.

Politically radicals begin as people who seek fundamental change, but eventually the term tends to take on a life of its own, as it has done recently with Muslims who stand for an extreme political expression of Islam.


The etymology of radical is of or having roots.

As the OP has quoted, the Oxford dictionary says that it is "based on thorough or complete political or social reform" and "representing or supporting an extreme section of a political party."

The unnamed Muslim scholar is a radical if he supports going back to the roots of Islam. (I won't veer into whether he is of the Sunni or Shia branch; that is quite another story.) He might be seen as radical if those roots include some of the more extreme aspects, such as executing infidels.

He would not be considered a radical if he were to promote either the milder or more recent developments among Muslims. (An example of the former would be giving alms. Even though this is one of the pillars of Islam (and thus a root), he would not be considered radical if he were to promote alms-giving.)

There is some sense in which radical is in the eye of the beholder. The western press considers execution of a journalist as extreme and deplorable, but the giving of alms as mild and commendable.

  • Thanks for the explanation. But you got you facts mixed up. Oh well, can't expect better than this form an "infidel". Sep 27, 2016 at 13:19
  • Thanks for not starting a fatwa against this infidel ;) Please help me know where I got my facts mixed up.
    – rajah9
    Sep 27, 2016 at 16:49

Looking at the etymology of radical it is obvious that the "having roots" or "relating to the roots of" meaning is the original. Presumably the "fundamental change" meaning is related to the expression "root and branch reform" which has origins going back at least to the 17th century

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.