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-ism is a suffix in many English words, first usage , originally derived from Ancient Greek -ισμός (-ismos), reaching English through Latin, via French.[1] It is often used in philosophy to define specific ideologies, and, as such, at times it is used as a noun when referring to a broad range of ideologies in a general sense.[2] The suffix 'ism' qua ism is neutral and therefore bears no connotations associated with any of the many ideologies it has been appended to; such determinations can only be informed by public opinion regarding specific ideologies like ageism, cubism etc. According to Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage it is a belief, attitude, style, etc., that is referred to by a word that ends in the suffix -ism : the act, practice, or process of doing something

behavior like that of a specified kind of person or thing
unfair treatment of a group of people who have a particular quality

• act :practice :process <criticism> <plagiarism> / manner of action or behavior characteristic of a (specified) person or thing <animalism>

• prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a (specified) attribute <racism> <sexism>

• state :condition :property <barbarianism> / abnormal state or condition resulting from excess of a (specified) thing <alcoholism> or marked by resemblance to (such) a person or thing <giantism>

• doctrine :theory :religion <Buddhism>

• adherence to a system or a class of principles <stoicism>

• characteristic or peculiar feature or trait <colloquialism>

• a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory

• an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief

"we all have got to come to grips with our isms"
Joycelyn Elders

For examples of the use of -ism as a suffix see the following:

History of the term[edit]

The first recorded usage of the suffix ism as a separate word in its own right was in 1680. By the nineteenth century it was being used by Thomas Carlyle to signify a pre-packaged ideology. It was later used in this sense by such writers as Julian Huxley and George Bernard Shaw.

Word of the Year[edit]

Merriam-Webster Dictionary declared in December 2015, this word -ism to be the Word of the Year. A suffix is the Word of the Year because a small group of words that share this three-letter ending triggered both high volume and significant year-over-year increase in lookups at Merriam-Webster.com. Taken together, these seven words represent millions of individual dictionary lookups.[3]


  1. ^ "-ism". Oxford English Dictionary online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2014. (subscription required)
  2. ^ "ism n.". Oxford English Dictionary online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2014. (subscription required)
  3. ^ "The Word of the Year is: -ism | Merriam-Webster". 

Further reading[edit]

  • Today's Isms: Socialism, Capitalism, Fascism, Communism, Libertarianism by Alan Ebenstein, William Ebenstein and Edwin Fogelman (11th ed, Pearson, 1999, ISBN 978-0130257147)
  • Isms and Ologies: 453 Difficult Doctrines You've Always Pretended to Understand by Arthur Goldwag (Quercus, 2007, ISBN 978-1847241764) ranges from Abolitionism to Zoroastrianism.
  • Isms: Understanding Art by Stephen Little (A & C Black, 2004, ISBN 978-0713670110), one of a series of similar titles including ... Architecture, ... Modern Art, ... Fashion and ... Religions.
  • The Ism Book: A Field Guide to Philosophy by Peter Saint-Andre.