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When was the word "terrorism" first used in the world? I did some research but, the internet gave me two answers. The first one said it was first used in 1794. But, the second one said it was first introduced in 1160. I want to know when was it first used in the world. Does anyone know when the word "terrorism" was first used?

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    Part of the problem is there's no set definition of it (as per wiki).
    – Wordster
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:26
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    Also, the 1160 reference was for "terrible," not "terrorism."
    – Wordster
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:27
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    @Wordster This isn't about terrorism, it's about the word "terrorism". You don't need a set definition in order to say when the word was first used. In any case, the English language wasn't around in the 1st-century AD.
    – Laurel
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:36
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    Good point as for practice vs. mere term. But the English lang. objection doesn't hold, since twice she says "in the world." Also, its first usage re the Jacobins: that was in FRENCH, but was it also at that time referred to as "terrorism" in English?
    – Wordster
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:44
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    @Wordster The fact that this is posted on ELU implies that the OP is looking for the first use of "terrorism" in English or its antecedent languages. Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 21:44

4 Answers 4

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According to the OED, it was first used in 1795 or 1796, depending on what definition you look at.

The 1795 citation refers to the French Reign of Terror:

During the reign of terrorism, I was a close prisoner for eight long months.
Speech in Convention

The year 1796 is when it was first used in its general sense:

John Thelwall..pointed out the defects of all the ancient governments of Greece, Rome, Old France, &c.; and the causes of rebellion, insurrection, regeneration of governments, terrorism, massacres, or revolutionary murders.
The pursuits of literature

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  • These information had helped me a lot
    – Annie Chen
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:51
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    I find it interesting that "terrorism" was basically formed the same way as capitalism or fascism -- a style of governance defined by, respectively, terror, the importance of capital, and the same (forced) unity as a bundle of sticks (a fascis). Of course it means something different today -- terrorists generally aren't a recognized state government -- but the etymology is interesting.
    – anon
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 23:45
  • Since the question was "When was the word "terrorism" first used in the world?", one could accept the French form "terrorisme" and prepone the date by one year to January 1794 (Source). Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 13:49
  • @Frank The question would then be off-topic on ELU. Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 14:17
  • OED doesn't claim to always list the earliest use; 'earliest confirmed use in written form' is what they do claim, if memory serves me right. Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 14:18
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I would add (from the usual suspect etymonline) that the first usage from 1795 meant specifically governmental terror,

terrorism (n.)

1795, in specific sense of "government intimidation during the Reign of Terror in France" (March 1793-July 1794), from French terrorisme, noted in English by 1795 as a coinage of the Revolution, from Latin terror "great fear, dread, alarm, panic; object of fear, cause of alarm; terrible news," from PIE root *tres- "to tremble" (see terrible).

while the general usage came from the Irish uprising in 1798.

General sense of "systematic use of terror as a policy" is first recorded in English 1798 (in reference to the Irish Rebellion of that year).

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  • The first use their researchers have found. Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 14:24
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The concept goes back to the origin of states thousands of years ago. The specific word 'terrorism' instead of 'causing fear as a weapon of war at the state level' comes from the Jacobin period 'The Terror' of the 1790's, where the French 'terreur' (panic, fear) became the term 'terrorisme' (a state of panic/fear that references this period of time).

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    This is a really solid line of thought. Would be an even better answer if you could cite some authorities or reference works.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:41
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    But she already mentions 1794 in her question: she evidently thinks (?) that's not satisfactory.
    – Wordster
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:47
  • So the first time the word "terrorism was made was in 1790
    – Annie Chen
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:48
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    Citations added per @DanBron 's suggestion.
    – Carduus
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:39
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'Terrorism' in 1795–1796

The vast majority of instances of terrorism that Google Books searches turn up in works published in 1795 relate to the French Reign of Terror. I didn't find any matches for terrorism or terrorist[s] from before 1795.

For example, from "On the Constitution," a speech delivered by Thomas Paine in the [French] Convention, dated July 7, 1795, reprinted in Dissertation on First-Principles of Government (1795):

"In England I was proscribed for having vindicated the French revolution, and I have suffered a rigorous imprisonment in France, for having pursued a similar mode of conduct. During the reign of terrorism, I was a close prisoner for eight long months, and remained ſo above three months after the æra of the 10th. Thermidor. I ought, however, to state, that I was not prosecuted by the People, either of England or of France. The proceedings in both countries were the effects of the despotism existing in their respective governments. But even if my persecution had originated in the people at large, my principles and conduct would still have remained the same. Principles which are influenced and subject to controul of tyranny, have not their foundation in the heart.

From Helen Williams, "Letter II" (undated) in Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France, From the Thirty-first of May 1793, till the Twenty-eighth of July 1794, and of the Scenes Which Have Passe in the Prisons of Paris, volume 2 (1795):

Among the crowds who were led to the guillotine, two persons only displayed strong marks of dismay and terror. One of these persons was Madame du Barry, the mistress of Lewis XV. She had been induced to leave England, where she passed some time after the revolution, and return to France, in order to secure her property; and soon after the 31st of May was led from her beautiful pavilion at Lucienne, to a prison in Paris, by one of the agents of terrorism, who, I am sorry to add, was an Englishman. The prisons, to use a French mode of expression, in a short time became the anti- chambers of the scaffold; and Madame du Barry's mind was impressed strongly with a presage of her fate.

An an early instance in which terrorism refers more generally to a repressive system of governance, rather than specifically to the French Reign of terror occurs in Robert Adair, A Whig's Apology for His Consistency: In a Letter from a Member of Parliament to His Friend in the Borough of * * * * (1795):

If, when kept at a distance by our fears, and struggling with all the difficulties of her [France's] revolution, our danger from her opinions was such as to justify whatever our great men have said and done to repress them, what hope will be left us when France, cloathed in the double fascination of novelty and victory, comes to demand an intercourse with you on terms of conciliation and commerce?Is it just then that these opinions will lose their danger, and that our constitution may be left to take care of itself ? or is it upon a peace that we are to enforce the system of Tory terrorism with renovated vigour, and carry into yet wider effect the set of measures which it has originated?

Similarly, from Robert Bisset, Sketch of Democracy (1796):

From the cessation of limited monarchy and the substitution of democracy in its stead, Greece [in the seventh century BC] had become a scene of licentiousness and wickedness. Athens was a particularly notorious. It was entirely in that state of anarchy, which follows the destruction of an old government, before there is virtue or ability enough to frame a new one of permanent force.

Under pretence of restraining this anarchy and licentiousness, Draco established his system of terrorism. His laws and government therefore only increased the evils. The people were in the greatest confusion and misery.


'Terrorist' and 'Terrorists' in 1795

Occurrences in 1795 of the related nouns terrorist and terrorists are likewise primarily associated with the French political scene. Indeed, some early instances of terrorists specifically associate the term with Robespierre's factional supporters. For instance, from Watkin Tench, "Letter V" (dated February 5, 1795, and written from La Normandie, a prison ship), in Letters Written in France to a friend in London, Between the Month of November 1794 and the Month of May 1795 (1796):

Through these channels I draw not only abundant matter for reflection, but frequently obtain diversion. "Moderation, and down with the Terrorists!" resound, I believe, from one end to the other of the republic. It is in all respects our interest to wish that such sentiments may be more than nominal. It is certain that a general dismission of the creatures of Robespierre is taking place.

And from a review of D'Ivernois, The French Revolution at Geneva in The Monthly Review; or Literary Journal (August 1795):

Some of the revolutionists, who had more humanity than others, finding that there was a design on foot to break into the prisons, and to murder all the prisoners confined since the revolution, applied to Gase [a parson belonging to the church of Geneva] as one of the new revolutionary syndics, and desired that he would adopt measures for defeating so shocking a design, and for protecting the lives of the prisoners. The answer of the unfeeling monster was, "I had rather that three or four hundred aristocrats should perish, than that a single patriot should receive so much as a scratch."—Soulavie, the French minister sent to Geneva, and under whose auspices it would seem that all the atrocities attending the revolution in that city were perpetrated, is now a prisoner in France, where he remains still untried, under a charge of being one of Robespierre's terrorists.

One interesting early occurrence of terrorist associates the term with adherence to the views of Thomas Paine. From a review of The Rights of the Nation and the Wrongs of the Prince in The Monthly Review (July 1795):

Again—'He,' meaning the letter-writer, 'declaims with glowing and graceful innuendos on a mixed motive and double principle. He is against king, prince, and constitution, because a terrorist and a Painite ; he is against the prince and Mr. Fox, &c. because a Pittite. But whether he is only a pretended Painite, and a real Pittite, and a new species of alarmist, may seem a question to some, if not doubtful to all : because decidedly a ministerial instrument, men consider this a work of duplicity.' Again,—'It is not merely the debts of the Prince ; the reputation of royalty and monarchy are affected. It is not private honor, private justice, private credit, or a principle of private honesty between man and man that are at stake, it is become a public question to which monarchy turns, and turning, this terrorist would make "tremble too."

However, one unusual instance from 1795 the term "pulpit terrorist" in a wholly different sense—the sense of "religious sermon giver who attempts to inculcate terror in his listeners." From Peter Pindar, "The Sorrows of Sunday: An Elegy," in The Royal Tour, and Weymouth Amusements: A Solemn and Reprimanding Epistle to the Laureat (1795):

Life with the down of cygnets may be clad!

Ah! why not make her path a pleasant track?

"No!" cries the Pulpit Terrorist, (how mad!)

"No! let the world be one huge hedgehog's back."


An early summing up of 'terrorist' as pejorative term

Francois Pages, Secret History of the French Revolution, from the Convocation of the Notables in 1787 to the First of November 1796, volume 2 (1797) offers a thoughtful commentary on the evolution of terrorist as used in France in the course of the French Revolution:

Such are the horrors which have sullied our revolution, that in proportion as it has created crimes, it becomes necessary to invent words to express them. After the revolution of the 9th Thermidor (July 27) of which we have just given the details, there was excited a re-action, the more bloody in proportion as oppression had been the stronger. Those who had concurred in the tyranny of Robespierre were denominated Terrorists, Robespierrists, and Maratists ; those pure patriots who had pronounced their sentiments with any degree of energy, were also frequently confounded under these general denominations. The re-actors in their turns were called new terrorists or furorists. Thus in the course of revolution what is a virtue at one time becomes a crime at another ; and these terms crime and virtue, have no fixed or determinate sense.

This, at any rate, seems to remain constant over the years: one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter—and partisans on either side of a conflict are quick to apply the more attractive term to their friends and the more repellent term to their foes.

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