“Extremism” sounds like an ideology, by analogy with Marxism for example. Or it could be akin to a behavioural state like mutism or autism. With respect to these different directions, I’m wondering what the word’s political and cultural history is.

Lexico defines extremism as

The holding of extreme political or religious views; fanaticism.
‘Otherwise their anger and frustration can lead to religious extremism’

  • 1
    I take offense at calling autism a "defect"...and we don't do translations into other languages here. Oct 13, 2020 at 20:29
  • "-ism" was obviously borrowed from transcendentalism. Of course, that borrowed from rationalism. Which of course borrowed from romanticism.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 13, 2020 at 21:20
  • 3
    I concur with Cascabel. While I hesitate at the 100-rep penalty, you must edit this question.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 13, 2020 at 21:23
  • 1
    What the OP is probably seeking is an explanation of why it is that we can use the word extreme for extreme goodness, extreme kindness, extreme helpfulness, etc., but we never use the word extremism for the pursuit of anything like that, even though it is obviously derived from extreme. How did the word end up being limited to only certain kinds of extremes?
    – jsw29
    Oct 14, 2020 at 15:35
  • 1
    -ism is not just about religion or government: "Roughly, the word in -ity usually means the quality of being what the adjective describes, or concretely an instance of the quality, or collectively all the instances; & the word in -ism means the disposition, or collectively all those who feel it. [Fowler]". Sure, there's 'Catholicism' and 'communism' but there's also 'witticism' and 'nepotism'.
    – Mitch
    Oct 19, 2020 at 15:40

4 Answers 4


The word is a simple construct derived from the adjective extreme and seems unlikely to have a strong cultural development as opposed to filling a linguistic niche for a suitable related noun. According to Google ngram its use has increased steadily since the early 1900s.

Extremism = "the fact of someone having beliefs that most people think are unreasonable and unacceptable"

Cambridge dictionary

This meaning accords with other dictionaries and with common usage. The beliefs, which may be of any form (for examples: leftist/rightist, religious/atheistic, nationalist/globalist, communist/capitalist), are not innate but are chosen by the believers.

Because extremism is related to behaviour that is by definition outside that condoned by most people it is not akin to Marxism, which has a set of particular beliefs open to as many people as choose to embrace it.

Nor is it reasonably likened to mutism or autism, both of which are human conditions characteristic of some people but not in any sense chosen by them.

  • I have edited my answer to make my position clear and for the avoidance of doubt.
    – Anton
    Oct 13, 2020 at 22:09
  • Merrimack Webster tells me that defective may be offensive. It does not say so for defect. Some may consider your use of crap equally offensive; it is certainly vulgar. We are in the land of opinion.
    – Anton
    Oct 15, 2020 at 7:32
  • I've lost the plot re defect. I am more interested in usage than in essentialist definitions. It's sad but possibly true that many 'isms' are in usage terms liable to communicate pathology or defect. Not my view of autism but it is used by an
    – ChrisDWard
    Oct 17, 2020 at 18:19
  • @jsw29 Yes I merely intended it in the sense "An innate quality or ability is one that you were born with, not one you have learned" (Cambridge dictionary). My implication is that no belief is innate (beliefs are instead learned or chosen), whereas other attributes and conditions such as those mentioned, stemming from ontogenesis and manifested after birth, cannot be learned or chosen.
    – Anton
    Oct 19, 2020 at 17:12

OED: Extremism:

Etymology: < extreme adj., adv., and n. + -ism suffix.

Tendency to be extreme; disposition to go to extremes.

1865 Daily Telelegraph. 29 Dec. 2/1 These days of extravagance and extremeism.

1887 The American XIII. 276 It is..this extremism which makes any effective control of the traffic in liquors so nearly hopeless.

The 1865 quote may be a reference to the suppression of the Morant Bay rebellion by Edward John Eyre and the events that followed.


The lack of wording to describe good extremes is, likely, because there can not be any good extremes. The extremism, itself.

A person can be extremely normal, healthy, etc, in terms of mental acuity, and, physical strength, but, these traits, themselves, aren't extremes. Even the loftiest theories and other such works require a balanced view of things. Even great physical strength requires efficient muscles.

Being extremely generous, in the sense of handing out your life's savings, say, to strangers on a street corner, may be considered crazy behavior. Similarly, an extreme lottery win of tens of millions of dollars often leads to the complete demise of winners. Relatively extreme acts of charity pale in comparison to incremental sustained good in the community by keeping the overall wealth there. Some cures may be worse than others, as require more hardship by the patient, but, cures, themselves, aren't extreme. Trace amounts of poisons, in balanced amounts, not too much, or little, can cure us. Here, there is extreme accuracy, but, accuracy, itself, is about a delicate balance of things.

In general, it's much easier to quickly tear things down than to properly build them up with incremental or measured good acts. Haven't IQ's risen markedly with the overall health of the population, in the last hundred years? And, on the decline, again? If I recall, it takes millions of years for a species' genetic material to normalize on its own.

In other words, a wrong can be very wrong in many ways, whereas a right is just right in just one way. Although questions may be hard to answer, the answers, themselves, over long periods of time, remain reasoned out (in a balanced way). There are infinitely many ways to solve a given problem, but, each way admits only one overall solution to it, in which one solution may be more direct, elegant, etc, than another, but, each is still a matter of a balanced perspective and set of skills.

  • Thanks, I have lots of sympathy for your appeal to an Aristotelian balance. On the other hand, when there is a still a question of perspective. We are something, not nothing: that's a truth for which there is no reasonable middle ground. Climate change is bad for us. From my perspective that's extremely true. Some who label climate-change-deniers as extremists would also regard people as extremists if they asserted the bad effects of climate change too sronlgy.
    – ChrisDWard
    Oct 21, 2020 at 11:19
  • Hi. We are something not everything, either. We "exist" outside of nothing/everything, yet, within it. We are "balanced/imbalanced" in the sense that our thoughts thus coincidentally match up with events around us. It's like we, and the other life forms are the only ones to "guess" the right answers. As with the pursuit of a theory of everything, the final solution can only be "guessed" at. It's beyond us, yet, we could comprehend such if thus given it. Something not completely intentional.
    – G. Rem
    Oct 22, 2020 at 14:32

Extremism is a construct (I agree) that has become increasingly prominent since 1900 (thank you for that info). If it does fill a semantic niche, it's a very elastic one, since extremism is a tendentious description. The elasticity has two sources (1) The concept depends on the speaker's perspective (as also does the word terrorism). (2) The suffix -ism sometimes implies an attribute that is characteristic, rather than definitive, of a category but only makes sense if the category's definition is accepted. The Catholic creed defines catholicism relatively unambiguously. Parkinsonism resembles Parkinson's disease, a category that can be defined objectively. Similar objective authority seems to attach to words such as extremism, barbarism and vulgarism, but there is no objective definition for categories such as these. It looks as though the rise in usage of the term extremism reflect the history of Anglo-American politics over the last 100 years.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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