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According to Etymonline populist was originally a late 19th c. AmE term, but its current connotation appeared only a few decades later:

  • 1892 (n.) "adherent of populism;" 1893 (adj.), American English, from Latin populus "people" (see people (n.)) + -ist. Originally in reference to the U.S. Populist Party organized February 1892 to promote certain issues important to farmers and workers.

  • The term outlasted the party, and by 1920s came to mean "representing the views of the masses" in a general way.

The following Italian site says that the English term is actually a translation of the late 19th century Russian expression "narodničestvo" used to refer a local political movement whose aim was to help rural communities:

  • dall'inglese: populism, traduzione del russo: narodničestvo movimento politico e culturale di fine ottocento che mirava a riscattare la dignità delle comunità rurali.

Questions:

  • was the term populist originally taken from the Russian political movement?
  • was the later change in connotation linked to the description of American events, or rather, of European historical events of the 1920s?
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+100

1891: The earliest attestation of 'populist' in OED, from The New York Times, is dated 12 Jan 1891. The attestation is for sense A.1, "An adherent of a political party formed in the United States in 1892 to represent the interests of the entire population. Now hist.":

It later transpired that arrangements had been made by the Populists' majority in the Senate with Populist members in the House.

op. cit.

As pointed out in a comment (by DavePhD), however, the quote is misdated in OED (as is their 1891 quote attesting the adjective). The first use of 'populist' in what OED gives as sense A.1 appears in a newspaper almost six months later (The Progressive Farmer, Winston, North Carolina, 2 Jun 1891; see answer given by DavePhD).

1895: The derivation of OED sense A.2 is said to be "after Russian narodnik". This sense is first attested by an author with a Russian surname, P. Milyoukov, in Athenæum of 6 Jul 1895:

The first [group] values primitive collectivism because it regards it as an inalienable trait in the character of the Russian people... [It] sticks to its old name of ‘Populists’.

op. cit.

1849, 1961: However, much earlier attestation of 'populist', from the 31 Oct 1849 issue of The Londonderry Journal (Irish English), renders moot the question of whether the primary historical sense is "after" Russian narodnik:

populist, Irish English, 1849

Derry Journal, 31 October 1849 (paywalled link).

While the attestation in the 1849 Londonderry Journal could be "after" the Russian, I found no evidence supporting that origin. The attestation also contradicts that the historically primary (first) sense is from US use denoting a specific political party, as per the evidence presented for the earliest sense given by OED, sense A.1.

A careful examination of the context of the Londonderry Journal use, as shown in the clipping and surrounding material, suggests, rather, that the first sense of 'populist' in English was similar in many ways to OED sense A.4 (first attested from 1961):

A person who seeks to represent or appeal to the interests of ordinary people.

op. cit.

My tentative conclusion (pending corroborating or contradicting evidence) is that 'populist' in the clipping from The Londonderry Journal is used in the general sense of

A person who represents and participates in the interests of ordinary people.

The sense intended may, however, be nothing more nor less than 'one who populates'.

1890 and earlier; source of 'populist' in 'popularist': OED gives 'popularist' as a precursor of 'populist' in various senses, notably attesting it from The Times (London) 1882 in a political sense resembling that of 'populist' sense A.1 (see above), but designating a German rather than a US political party, that is,

Saving, however, the Social Democrats and the Popularists, with a brace or so of aspiring Danes, the House could not be brought to see present reason in the motion.

op. cit.

Other senses of 'popularist' than that found in the earliest attestation provided by OED (1882) range in meaning from the jocular sense of 'most popular' to the agent noun 'one who makes popular.

popularist, 1849

Raleigh Times, North Carolina, 20 Apr 1849, paywalled.

popularist, 1888

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 15 September 1888, paywalled.

Most significant, though, in tracing the origins and development of 'Populist' in OED sense A.1, are multiple uses of 'Popularist' in both the US and British press to denote political parties. These uses are attested from 1859 to 1889, that is, from the years leading up to the adoption of 'Populist' in the specific sense, given as OED's A.1, by the US press and, soon after, its adoption by the British press.

Examples of 'popularist' use from the British and US press, 1859-1889:

popularist, 1859

Wexford Constitution, 25 May 1859 (paywalled).

popularist, 1881, Nov US

South London Press, 12 November 1881 (paywalled).

popularist, 1881, Dec UK

Manhattan Nationalist (Manhattan, Kansas), 29 Dec 1881 (paywalled).

popularist, 1889

Reynolds's Newspaper (London), 03 February 1889 (paywalled).

Thus, aside from the readily apparent eytmological borrowing of 'populist' from the Latin populus plus the English suffix -ist, the use and development of 'populist' in all its senses involves the somewhat parallel use and development of 'popularist'. This is true not only of 'Populist' in the narrow US sense from 1891, but also of 'populist' in its earlier development from a general sense (1849) and its later devolvement back to a general sense of 'one who advocates, represents, and participates in the interests and concerns of ordinary people', a sense which is firmly re-established by 1961.

Historical trends redefining 'populist': By 1896, the Populist Party was split between 'fusionists', who advocated merging with mainline Democrats, and who ultimately prevailed, and independents. However, for decades afterward (1900-1960), the predominant reference of the term was to the former US political party.

A sprinkling of uses of 'populist' ('populistic', etc.) in the more general sense of "representing ordinary people" does appear in the material I examined from approximately 1900-1960. The historical trends prompting the return of the general sense appear to have their origins primarily, if not exclusively, in the US, and particularly in the gradual absorption of the Populist Party into the Democratic Party mainline along with the successful marginalization of populism as a variety of socialism.

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    The OED made an error saying that a 12 January 1891 article has the sentence " It later transpired that arrangements had been made by the Populists' majority in the Senate with Populist members in the House.". Instead, the article is two years later, 12 January 1893. query.nytimes.com/gst/… – DavePhD May 2 '17 at 10:22
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    @DavePhD, that's so. Well found. I was loath to believe OED would make the error, so I checked other archives. The date (1892) of the party formation in the definition had given me pause but, trusting as I am, I had passed that off as a historical nuance (party named or renamed being different than party formed, etc.) observed but not explained by OED. Thanks for pointing it out...it looks as if what you turned up may be the earliest citation I can find for the A.1 definition, but I'm still looking for "as by a barbarism they are called". – JEL May 2 '17 at 20:09
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    "Populists, as by a barbarism they are called" is from July 1893 in this source: books.google.com/… ( The Nineteenth Century, A Monthly Review) – DavePhD May 2 '17 at 20:31
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    @DavePhD, that cinches it, at least as far as my laziness allows. The sacred cow (OED) stepped in it, wholesale. – JEL May 2 '17 at 20:52
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A 2 June 1891 The Progressive Farmer, Winston, North Carolina, newspaper article explains the origin of the new term:

HE IS A POPULIST

There must be some short and easy way of designating a member of the Third Party. To say "he is a member of the People's Party" would be comprehensive enough but it would take too much time. Henceforth a follower aud affiliator of the People's Party is a "Populist;" for a new party needs and deserves a new term.

Four days later, an Indianapolis Journal article quotes another news paper, The Voice, as asking:

Shall we call the members of the People's party Peoplars, or Populists, or Dennis, or what?

The Indianapolis Journal concludes:

To an unprejudiced observer "Dennis" appears to be about right.

But, rather than "Dennis" the term "Populist" stuck.

Up through 1965, Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (7th edition) maintained that the noun "Populist" should be capitalized and referred only to the above party, the only definition being:

a member of a U.S. political party formed in 1891 primarily to represent agrarian interests and to advocate the free coinage of silver and government control of monopolies

By 1977 Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (8th edition) no longer capitalized the word and added a second definition (the 1965 definition being the definition 1):

  1. a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people
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A great number of "populist" (using the term generically) movements arose beginning in the late 1800s and running through at least the 1930s. (Some of them are arguably still active today.) I'm no historian, but I believe that social historians do ascribe several causes:

  • The industrial revolution, and its effect on workers
  • The increase in education levels and hence reading
  • The rise of the importance of "big commerce", due to railroads, manufacturing companies, etc
  • The rise of big banks, increase in predatory lending practices, etc
  • And no doubt 4-5 I'm forgetting

The net of this is that large numbers of people were both "disaffected" by conditions and "empowered" by their ability to write and communicate with others in the same situation. "Populist" movements, by whatever name, were simply coalitions of people who found themselves in this situation.

Given how pervasive the causative factors were, it's not surprising that the various movements arose about the same time, and relatively independently. From the standpoint of where the concept first arose, my understanding (totally unqualified as an historian!) is that the first ripples in the wave were likely in England and Germany, and that Russians joined the parade rather late. (But I must admit ignorance of what was going on in the rest of Europe.)

As to the term "populist", it's an obvious formation from what would naturally have been referred to in English as a "popular movement" or as a movement by the "populace", and likely does not have any etymological roots in an expression from another language.

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In 1788, a in New Travels in the United States of America, Jean Pierre Brissot wrote that John Hancock had "the virtues and the address of popularism." It went on to describe Hancock as "more beloved by the people" than by "enlightened men."

Samuel Adams is the best supporter of the party of Governor Hancock... A great generosity, united to a vast ambition, forms is character: he has the virtues and the address of popularism; that is to say, that without effort he shews himself the equal and friend of all...

Mr. Hancock has not the learning of his rival, Mr. Bowdoin... The latter is more esteemed by enlightened men; the former more beloved by the people.

OED attests this use of "popularism" as the earliest variant of "populism."

in 1873 The Democratic party was described as the "popular Democratic party" in The Buffalo Commercial.

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The first cited use of "populist" that I could find was, as mentioned by the OP, from 1891.

JEL has already done a thorough job documenting the precursor uses of "popularist."

Around that time, variants of "populism" seem to have been in the process of being sorted out. The term "populistic" appears around the same time as "populist."

enter image description here

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