Take care before you accuse someone of using the wrong word


Merriam Dictionary: Revisionist: support of ideas and beliefs that differ from and try to change accepted ideas and beliefs especially in a way that is seen as wrong or dishonest

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Inigo Montoya. Princess Bride

Oxford Dictionary: Terrorist: A person who uses terrorism in the pursuit of political aims.

The other day, a friend got a hold of me to ask a question. She had just finished reading an article titled, The Weaker Sex? Violence and the Suffragette Movement. Something had caused her to think she misunderstood the author’s point. That thing was the comment section.

The article’s author, Fern Riddle, walks her readers through the darker side of the Suffragette Movement, and questions why this aspect of the movement has been lost to the ages. In the opening paragraph Riddle illustrates that the movement was not as peaceful as we have been led to believe.

In the early hours of a mild November morning in 1913, a three-inch pipe was primed to explode later and destroy the multiple panels and ornate metal work that made the Glass House ‘one of the chief attractions’ of Alexandra Park in Manchester. A smouldering mass of twisted metal and broken glass was discovered and quickly attributed by the popular press to the wave of ‘suffragette outrages’ being committed across the country by the militant branch of the women’s rights movement. Kew Gardens had already suffered two attacks, on an orchid house and pavilion, and the campaign of arson and intimidation conducted by the militant wing of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and their supporters was reaching its height.

Riddle goes on to give other examples of extreme violence at the hands of militant Suffragettes. Riddle has done her homework. She cites court cases and press reaction to these acts of violence. Riddle is not attacking these women for their actions. The purpose of the article is to ask why historians continue to ignore them. Riddle calls the actions of these women, acts of terrorism, but does admit not everyone will agree.

While the majority of historians would baulk at describing any suffragette as a ‘terrorist’, most would accept that the actions of the militants could be viewed as a form of political extremism.

Riddle goes on to argue that after the horrors of World War I, the leaders of the movement sought to distance themselves from the agents of violence and because of this silence these women have been largely forgotten. Our unease with their tactics, leave us unable to come to term with their motives, as if they have no right to their feelings and frustration. It is a very good piece as it asks us to reevaluate the movement as a whole.

So, what’s the problem? Why was my friend confused? It turns out she wasn’t confused, it was the comment posters who were confused. Yeah, go figure.

The majority of the commenters were angry at Riddle over the use of the term terrorist when describing these agents of violence. One commenter thought Riddle was revising history by using a modern term (terrorism) when describing the events of the early 20th century (which, as far as I know, is still considered modern). Others agreed and continued to call Riddle a revisionist who uses a modern term to talk about (gasp) history!

The root of the word terrorism is taken from a Latin term that literally means “to frighten”. It became part of the phrase “terror cimbricus”, which was used by ancient Romans as far back as 105BC to describe the panic that ensued as they prepared for an attack by a fierce warrior tribe. The modern English word derives from the French term, Terreur , which was coined during the French Revolution. So no, the word is not modern, although we now reserve the use for war crimes or when groups attack nation-states.

Riddle is using the term correctly, but as stated before she concedes that historians might baulk at its use, but only because of the modern connotation. There are far worse terrorist out there and we could deem it inappropriate to group these ladies with modern terrorists. But to say the word does not apply would also be inappropriate, as by definition these ladies sought to strike fear and terror in the hearts and minds of those who opposed their political aims. Get over it people. You may feel uneasy with the term, but Riddle had every right to use it.

Riddle was not pushing any political agenda, nor was she revising history to make a point. Riddle is not placing these ladies on the same level as ISIS. The term terrorism is used to express the goal of the militant wing of the Suffragette Movement and the violent means by which these goals were to be met. In no way did Riddle color or revise the history of the movement. Even if she had used a modern term, this is not what it means to revise history anymore than using the word cancer to describe the medieval “wasting disease” revises history.

After reading the article, my friend and I agreed that the article illustrates just how hard women fought for equal rights and the right to vote. And, if schools would once again give these women a voice, we modern women might value what we have, instead of taking it for granted.


Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

2 thoughts on “Take care before you accuse someone of using the wrong word”

  1. Were the French Revolutionaries terrorists? After all, they had a Reign of Terror. Early labor activists, such as the Molly Maguires? Carry Nation and her fellow Prohibitionists? American Revolutionaries when they threatened Tories?
    We’ve attached a purely negative connotation to “terrorism” and the use of violence, for contemporary political reasons, without considering how violence has been used for both worthy and unworthy causes. To the extent Riddle opens this up to discussion, more power to her!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by Brian. Love your thoughts. I am sure all those who lost their heads in the French Revolution would have probably labeled Robespierre a terrorist.
      I think you are spot on, when you remind us violence has been used for both worthy and unworthy causes. I’d go further and say so has terrorism. The term is not modern and should be open for discussion. Good on Riddle I say!

      Liked by 1 person

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