Thanks to continuing official outrages against People Of Color piped to me by the media on almost a weekly basis, the corrosive effect of racial prejudice never strays far from my overstimulated mind. Obama’s “post-racial” presidency didn’t change hearts and minds automagically; that takes struggle, such as opposing the hundreds of GOP-filed state laws restricting voting access if not rights, which rub the salt of racism onto our civic wounds, laws that all but Republican lawmakers seem to see as targeting POC.
But racism is a slippery concept, I’ve found. And looking into the word led me to want to know more about how applying that little suffix to a noun turns a thing into a concept, if you can pin it down. Perhaps there’s a better ism to describe racial prejudice. I’ll get to that, but first, a brief tour of the wonderful, wacky world of isms.
Ism is a little noun ending that means, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a “distinctive doctrine, theory, or practice” at least since the 1670s, noting “the suffix -ism used as an independent word, chiefly disparagingly.” So right off the bat, to some extent, isms are objects of ridicule. Reasons for bashing isms vary, but it seems that their detractors are far more united than their proponents and their rationales for opposing a given ism are far less nuanced and coherent. Consider all the political brands those who embrace “socialism” have to choose from, while those who decry the term indiscriminately despise the lot of them.
The suffix–ism tends to occupy more neutral territory: OED (that is, the above website, not that OED) defines it as a “noun ending signifying the practice or teaching of a thing, from the stem of verbs in –izein [GR], a verb-forming element denoting the doing of the noun or adjective to which it is attached.” As I had expected, the Greeks coined it first.
You can find 322 isms listed at OED, from ableism to Zoroastrianism, many of which are breathtakingly myopic. Some of the more provincial ones include cledonism (literary), dudeism (sociological), incivism (political), melanism (medical), misoneism (cultural), naderism (eponymous), onanism (psycho-sexual), sciolism (snarky), thanatism (anti-religious), and verism (aesthetic—to which I tend to adhere, come to think of it).