The suffix "-ism" denotes a distinctive system of beliefs, myth, doctrine or theory that guides a social movement, institution, class or group. For example, baptize (literally derived from "to dip") becomes "baptism," a distinctive system of cleansing in water to testify to the forgiveness of sinsBowker, John (ed.) The Oxford dictionary of world religions. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997] . It is taken from the Greek suffix "-ismos," Latin -ismus, and Old French -isme, that forms nouns from verbal stems. Greek "baptismos" "immersion", for example, is derived from "baptizein", a Greek verb meaning "to immerse". Its usage has since been extended to signify the ideology or philosophy surrounding the element to which the suffix is added.

Concepts represented by "ism"

The -ism suffix can be used to express the following concepts:

*religion or belief system (e.g. Buddhism, Mormonism, Judaism, Satanism)
*doctrine or philosophy (e.g. pacifism, olympism, nihilism)
*theory developed by an individual (e.g. Marxism, Maoism)
*political movement (e.g. feminism, egalitarianism)
*artistic movement (e.g. cubism)
*action, process or practice (e.g. voyeurism)
*characteristic, quality or origin (e.g. heroism)
*state or condition (e.g. pauperism)
*excess or disease (e.g. botulism)
*prejudice or bias (e.g. racism, sexism)
*characteristic speech patterns (e.g. Yogiism, Bushism)
*miscellaneous (e.g. jism)

Many "isms" are defined as an act or practice by some, while also being defined as the doctrine or philosophy "behind" the act or practice by others. Examples include activism, ageism, altruism, despotism, elitism, optimism, racism, sexism, terrorism and weightism.


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.

In the United States of the mid-nineteenth century, the phrase "the isms" was used as a collective derogatory term to lump together the radical social reform movements of the day (such as slavery abolitionism, feminism, alcohol prohibitionism, Fourierism, pacifism, early socialism, etc.) and various spiritual or religious movements considered non-mainstream by the standards of the time (such as Transcendentalism, spiritualism or "spirit rapping", Mormonism, the Oneida movement often accused of "free love", etc.). Southerners often prided themselves on the American South being free from all of these pernicious "Isms" (except for alcohol temperance campaigning, which was compatible with a traditional Protestant focus on strict individual morality). So on September 5 and 9 1856, the "Examiner" newspaper of Richmond, Virginia ran editorials on "Our Enemies, the Isms and their Purposes", while in 1858 "Parson" Brownlow called for a "Missionary Society of the South, for the Conversion of the Freedom Shriekers, Spiritualists, Free-lovers, Fourierites, and Infidel Reformers of the North" (see "The Freedom-of-thought Struggle in the Old South" by Clement Eaton).

In the present day, it appears in the title of a standard survey of political thought, "Today's ISMS" by William Ebenstein, first published in the 1950s, and now in its 11th edition.

ee also

*List of belief systems
*List of philosophical isms
*classical compound


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