The Origins of ‘Racism’
The curious beginnings of a useless word.
The Oxford English Dictionary is a multivolume reference work that is one of Western scholarship’s most remarkable achievements — the standard dictionary of the English language on what are known as “historical principles.” Unlike most dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary also provides information on the first historical appearance and usage of words. The range of the erudition in the Oxford English Dictionary is often astounding, but for AR readers, one of its most interesting entries is for the word “racism.”
According to the second edition (1989) of the Oxford English Dictionary , the earliest known usage of the word “racism” in English occurred in a 1936 book by the American “fascist,” Lawrence Dennis, The Coming American Fascism. The second usage of the term in English that the Oxford English Dictionary records is in the title of a book originally written in German in 1933 and 1934 but translated into English and first published in 1938 — Racism by Magnus Hirschfeld, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. Since Hirschfeld died in 1935, before the publication of Dennis’ book the following year, and had already used the word extensively in the text and title of his own book, it seems only fair to recognize him rather than Dennis as the originator of the word “racism.” In the case of the word “racist” as an adjective, the Oxford English Dictionary ascribes the first known usage to Hirschfeld himself. Who was Magnus Hirschfeld and what did he have to tell us about “racism”?