First published in “Modern English Teacher” 1998, with additions 2010
A follower of an ‘-ism’ is an ‘-ist’ .
This has been a fair general rule for vocabulary development. There are exceptions, such as Catholic / Catholicism, liberal / liberalism and so on, but the rule is still worth teaching. We have fascism / fascist, monarchism / monarchist, communism / communist, anarchism / anarchist, methodism / methodist, fundamentalism / fundamentalist, Buddhism / Buddhist, Marxism / Marxist, Stalinism-Stalinist, Maoism / Maoist, Gaullism / Gaullist and so on.
Thatcherite and Reaganite?
So why do we then have Thatcherism / Thatcherite and Reaganism / Reaganite? First consider other ‘-ite’ endings. Hittites, Israelites, Caananites and Gideonites were members of biblical tribes, and the terms are not used for their descendants today. Luddite (someone opposed to increased mechanization) was named after Ned Lud who, according to the Shorter Oxford was ‘an insane person who destroyed two stocking frames c. 1779.’ Also according to the Shorter Oxford the ending ‘-ite’ is used for ‘a follower of a person, doctrine or school, as Irvingite (which is completely new to me), Luddite, Pre-Raphaelite, Trotskyite.
‘-ite’ is also used for the names of minerals and rocks such as anthracite, chlorite, and Superman’s kryptonite, as well as the trade name Samsonite which is presumably a suitcase with the strength of Samson.
The key to the meaning of ‘follower of a person, doctrine or school’ is the Shorter Oxford’s note:
(freq. derog.), frequently derogatory.
Luddite is obviously derogatory, and the Pre-Raphaelites were the punks of Victorian art.
The original Luddites smashing machines
So, why don’t we say Thatcherist or Reaganist? Other political figures whose followers are -ites are Trotsky and Harold Wilson. You have the option of calling the followers of Trotsky either Trotskyists or Trotskyites. Followers of American President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas in 1919 were called Wilsonians but followers of Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s were called Wilsonites. Is one consciously derogatory? After all, a socialite (a person prominent in fashionable society) is very different from a socialist (an advocate or believer in socialism). At some point, someone coined the word Thatcherite, and it was probably a journalist. The word Reaganite must have emerged at roughly the same time, though he came into office in 1981, two years after Thatcher. Reaganite could have been echoing Thatcherite. Were the coiners trying to be derogatory? Was there a resonance between Thatcher and ‘right’ which proved irresistible?
Does it have anything to do with parochial British politics? The followers of the English radical John Wilkes in the 1790s were known as Wilkites, then those of the political philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 1830s were called Benthamites. As well as Wilsonite we have had Bennite, after Tony Benn, Powellism and Powellite after Enoch Powell, Paisleyism and Paisleyite after Ian Paisley and Bevinite, though I can’t find a dictionary reference for the last, nor whether the Bevinite referred to was the 1940s Labour politician Ernest Bevin or his contemporary Aneurin Bevan. Most post-war British politicians are too bland to have created an ‘-ism’ and therefore are denied an ‘-ist’ or an ‘-ite’. Think of Heath, Macmillan, Callaghan, Douglas-Home, or Eden.
Churchill, who was not at all bland, gives us only Churchillian, which seems restricted to adjectival use, and refers to rhetoric rather than ideology. Majorism and Majorite exist, as do Blairism and Blairite, but both seem to be simply journalistic (if not political) sequels to Thatcherism and Thatcherite. Brownite? A Google search reveals several references, but the Wiktionary considers it slang. It’s hard to see why when so many references are from august publications. The Spectator headlines Brownite Politics At Its Worst. The BBC website announces Brownites v Blairites: The Full Story. The Wall Street Journal announces Brownites Getting Their Excuses In Early. Cameronite is unlikely because it’s already the name of a grey, metallic mineral.
American presidents don’t produce ‘-isms’ either, even ones as prominent as Lincoln, Kennedy and Roosevelt. ‘-isms’ from personal names, except perhaps for Social Darwinism, are un-American. Jeffersonianism exists as a word, but is rare, probably because it’s hard to say. Jeffersonian is more frequent, and can be a noun or an adjective. This may be doing justice. Kennedy greeted a gathering of Nobel Prize winners to the White House by saying that it was the greatest gathering of intellect the White House had seen since Thomas Jefferson had dined there … alone.
Clintonite on the left, Cameronite on the right.
Clintonite, like Cameronite, sounds wrong because there is a mineral called Clintonite. Bush is too short a word to spawn Bushite, and when written is too easy to read as Bullshite. Obama causes problems with that “a” ending, meaning that a reasonable spelling requires a hyphen: Obama-ite. A net search reveals that nearly all references to Obamaite (without a hyphen) are from vicious far-right sources who believe that access to health care is but a step away from importing the 1966 Cultural Revolution.
Full access to a corpus might give the answer to the first recorded uses of Thatcherite and Reaganite, but it wouldn’t pinpoint the origin or reason. My guess, and it’s no more than a guess, is that subliminally Thatcherites and Reaganites and all the other ‘-ites’ (notice that they were all extreme or considered extreme by their opponents) were seen as acting more like those with narrow tribal instincts and loyalties in biblical times (Hittites, Israelites and Caananites) than as followers of a broad ideology (socialists, humanists, Marxists). In other words, ‘-ists’ have been followers of larger, further-reaching beliefs than ‘-ites’. As for the future, Thatcherite, Reaganite and Majorite have created such a solid precedent that ‘-ist’ would sound positively quaint for new coinings. I suspect that ‘-ite’ will hold sway for the forseeable future. This might just mean that the politicians we get nowadays are not the grand thinkers of the past, but are following R.A. Butler’s 1950’s dictum that the role was to steer the ship of state around the hazards in its immediate path, rather than to decide on the eventual destination. Another way of looking at it is they aren’t political philosophers so much as self-serving professional politicos.
A.A. Gill in an article in The Sunday Times described an election night party in London:
This was a mixture of media, politics, arts and the bloody fortunate. A ballot box at the door revealed 50/50 Cameroons and Milifans, with a single ironic Farangist. As one fellow columnist muttered to me, this was the Notting Hill ballot: vote for Labour, pray for Tories. For most of the room it was the mansion tax election.
It’s a humorous article, and Farangist is a witty reference to Falangists. Actually “Milifans” has appeared elsewhere, again jokingly, but then The Ed Miller Band is also an irresistible reference. A few days later, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail referenced Cameron supporters as ‘Cameroons.’
A Google check found a few Sturgeonists and Salmondists, both sounding decidedly fishy to me, and just a couple of Millibanists.