How did conservatism get to be radical? Left Right and Radical Roots
A reader writes in to complain that he is having, well, a reaction to the use of the word “radical.” He was taught as an undergraduate some decades ago, he says, that “radical” was a pejorative term for the political far left. “Reactionary” was the counterpart to refer to the political far right.
But now radical seems to have been downgraded to an all-purpose synonym for “extreme.”
“Please help,” he writes, “before I ‘react’ in the extreme!”
Dear Reader, you might say that radical has returned to its roots. Its root actually is root, in fact. Our English word derives from the Latin radix, which means simply “root,” and you may recall working with the radical sign in math class to represent square, cube, and other “roots.”
Radish derives from that same Latin word. One of my college professors, attempting to walk the class through the French political system, referred to the Radical Party. Its members evidently liked to let on that they were further to the left than was actually the case. They were like the radish, he said – red (socialist or even communist) on the outside, but white (conservative) on the inside.