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Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Egalitarian is one of those words I know very well, yet never seem to hear. It names the doctrine or person who promotes equality, a keyword in the economic climate of today. I hear about equality, inequality, and the need for equality all the time, Occupy Wall Street being a particularly poignant example, yet I do not recall hearing anyone describe themselves or their views as egalitarian. I can only conjecture as to why, by looking at the history of the word. Egalitarian comes from the Latin aequalis, for equal. At first egalitarian was actually equalitarian, which made much more sense. The first recorded use of equalitarian happened 3 September, 1799[1], by Robert Southey. Southey spoke of a conversation about equalitarian doctrine in the gospel. There is no direct reference to the situation in France or the French revolution, but given his interest in the topic – he had helped write The Fall of Robespierre after all – I find it difficult to believe that the French Revolution did not come up in some form or another. The last recorded usage of equalitarian was in 1837 in the Blackwell Magazine. There is a nearly fifty year gap before the concept was referenced again; by now the word had adopted French qualities and become egalitarian, in 1885[2], in E. C. G. Murray’s Under the Lens: Social Photographs. It was a commentary on the socio-political scene in Britain of the time. There was no mention of the French, and thus why equalitarian had become francized cannot be found in the book. However, in France there was a heated struggle between monarchists and republicans of the French government, and though E.C.G. Murray does not refer to the French many others did - “In warlike but egalitarian France,”[3]The violent egalitarian mood which had now for a year and more driven the military fury of the Republic,”[4] to name a couple such instances. If the connections between egalitarian and the political climate are true, then during the inception of both equalitarian and egalitarian the concept and application of egalitarianism in politics were being pushed to the forefront of debate. These were times when people were discussing egalitarianism itself and egalitarian policy, and being egalitarian was something relatively new and special. There was a need to identify who or what was egalitarian and not. Now that need has largely disappeared as egalitarianism has become somewhat of a standard value. Whenever I hear someone talk about income gaps and inequalities (whether they be TED talks or protesters in the streets) their message is not ‘this is why we should believe in equality’ but ‘there is inequality, and here is how to fix it’. The general focus now is pointing out inequalities, and waiting for people to be compelled to make it equal. Equality is used to refer to the end goal; egalitarian is instead a brand. It was used to help form the identity and ideals of equality-minded people in politically tumultuous times. Now that the identity is fully formed and accepted, the need for the word egalitarian has seemingly faded. 


 “egalitarian, adj. and n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 14 November 2012 <http://dictionary.oed.com/>.

[1] R. Southey, personal letter (3 Sept. 1799), “Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey”. (1856), I. 83
[2] G. Murray “Under Lens” (1885), II. 103
[3] Bodley, J. E. C., France. (1898), I. 162,
[4] Belloc, H., Marie Antoinette (1909), 377

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