The English word campaign comes from the French word campagne, which has two basic meanings:

  1. battle,
  2. countryside.

It seems that when this word came to English, only the "battle" meaning was kept (and later extended to political battles), while the "countryside" meaning somehow was lost.

Is there a term in linguistics to describe such behaviour? Is this common?

3 Answers 3


British (and American) senior officers were mostly educated men fluent in French and tended to (out of snobbishness) use French military terms: enfilade, siege, cavalry (chivalry) , fusilier, dragoon, grenadier etc. etc. so Campaign was just in a long list of French military terms taken wholesale into English.

Farmers on the other hand who were less educated and closer to their Anglo/Saxon/Nordic heritage favored words with Germanic roots, field, cow, hen, meadow etc.. Pasture is about the only agricultural term I can think of that doesn't have Germanic roots.


Campaign was used to mean ‘a tract of open country’ until at least the middle of the eighteenth century. The process by which a word widens its meaning can be described as ‘extension’ or ‘generalization’, although in the case of campaign the earlier meaning has been lost.


Doubtless ‘extension’ or ‘generalization’, ‘development’ or ‘evolution’ fit the process you describe, and I suggest ‘campaign’ isn’t an example.

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/french-english/campagne for one, supports my belief that ‘campagne’ no more means ‘battle ‘ in French than ‘campaign’ does in English. In either language a campaign is the series of battles that make up a war, and could mean ‘(a) battle’ only if by co-incidence the whole issue happened to be decided in a single fight. A campaign doesn’t have to include even one battle. It might be rare but campaigns and wars are best won by manoeuvre, not by blood-letting, which is why to go ‘on campaign’ means to take to the fields. It includes the readiness to accept a fight but it’s in the field, not the fight that we find the essence of the thing.

Almost identical etymology calls people who take their holidays under canvass ‘campers’ and explains both why demonstrators might ‘camp on your lawn’ and why that’s not quite the same as ‘parking their tanks on your lawn.’

The ‘countryside’ meaning might be lost in some dialects; it certainly isn’t in broad English.

Where I live in rural Suffolk, sugar beet farmers frequently say ‘campaign’ where other folk would use ‘harvest’, rather clearly meaning ‘to go to the fields and do all those beety, farmy, harvesty things that we do there at this time of year.’

I suggest - with no specific research - that the real derivation of commercial or political ‘campaign’ is not to battle for sales or votes, but simply to go out into the field…

  • Sugar beet is an unusual product where the factories are (or at least used to be) manned up and run only when the beet are being harvested. Also beet sugar is a product with a history of 100 years or less and which was nationalised for much of that time. The concept of the "sugar beet campaign" is thus more than the harvest and would have been named by early 20th century British Sugar bosses, almost certainly from the middle class, and probably with some military background from the First World War. This is why the word "campaign" refers only to sugar beet and all other crops are "harvested".
    – BoldBen
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 23:22
  • Thanks BoldBen and even if all of that were historically true, I don't see it having much bearing on the linguistics. Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 20:12
  • Which parts are you suggesting are historically untrue?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 21:55
  • I'm not suggesting anything of the kind. I'm trying to point out that it couldn't matter… Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 22:03
  • The linguistic point is that 'campaign' doesn't refer to harvest and field work in any other context than sugar beet and that the term 'campaign' in this context refers to the period of the year when the sugar beet factory is operating at full capacity. This means that the commercial and political terms are not derived from a general agricultural term it's more likely that the use of 'campaign' for commercial, political and sugar beet purposes is derived from the military use which is very old.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 20:06

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