ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Conservative or Reactionary: What’s the Difference?

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In this drawing, a reactionary administration gives the people a “leg up.”

Early today, while scrolling through my Twitter feed and ignoring my better judgement (I just can’t look away … It’s like reading about a train wreck in progress!), I came across an post from NPR about Judge Neil Gorsuch, to which someone replied, “He’s not a ‘conservative,’ check your dictionary. The Republicans are reactionaries….”

Conservative? Reactionary? What’s this difference? To find out, I took this tweeter’s advice and looked these words up. Here’s what I found.

The adjective conservative,* says the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (WNWDAL), is defined as:

1. tending to preserve established traditions or institutions and to resist or oppose any changes in these; as in a conservative political party.
2. of or characteristic of a conservative: as in conservative views
3. designating or of the major right wing political party in Great Britain or the similar one in Canada

The adjective reactionary*, on the contrary, is defined (by Webster’s) as, “characterized by or advocating reaction, especially in politics.”

Obviously, that isn’t much help, but the WNWDAL’s definition of the noun reaction* is. It defines this word  as

A movement back to a former or less advanced condition, stage, etc.; counter-tendency; especially, such a movement or tendency in economics or politics; extreme conservatism. [Emphasis added]

The (compact) Oxford English Dictionary offers a similar definition:

 A movement toward the reversal of an existing tendency or state of things, especially in politics; a return, or desire to return, to a previous state of affairs.

In other words, a reactionary is one who advocates for moving backward, or going back to something, whereas a conservative aims to preserve “established traditions or institutions.” Given the budget the administration released today, it’s clear from these definitions which one applies to our present “leader” and his desire to make American grimace again. (Hint, it’s not the second one.)

______________________________

But Wait, There’s More!

Wondering about the origins of these words? Don’t worry, the ARL has you covered.

Conservative, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (ODWH), goes back to late Middle English, wherein “the early recorded sense of the term was ‘aiming to preserve’; it is from late Latin conservativus, from the verb conservare, ‘to conserve.’

The ODWH goes on to say that the term’s “current senses as ‘averse to change’ and ‘conventional’ date from the mid-19th century.”

None of my etymological dictionaries had much to say about the origins of reactionary (or reaction) except to say that it comes from the French word réaction.

Keep Waiting, There’s Still More!

Any foray into the language of politics offers a fine excuse to crack the covers of some of my favorite books in the ARL’s collection.

In regard to conservatism, ISMs: A Compendium of Concepts, Doctrines, Traits, and Beliefs, notes that:

The basic impulse behind Conservatism is fear. Without progress and growth, institutions stagnate and decay, and thus the conservative clings with futile persistence tot he established order without sufficient courage to improve the situation by undertaking positive action.

Not to be outdone, Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary and equal-opportunity offender writes that a conservative is “A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

Finally, Bierce protege, William Lambdin notes in the Doublespeak Dictionary that a conservative is:

A person who wets his finger before turning the pages of a book, who takes pride in his penmanship, knows how to waltz and knows bankers by their first names. The opposite of a “liberal,” who drives a Volkswagen minibus, eats no breakfast, owns no chairs and brings jars of peanut butter as house-warming gifts.

None of these books have anything to say about reactionaries. I checked.

* Note: Parts of the definitions of conservative and reactionary didn’t apply to the political context discussed here, so I omitted them. Just thought you’d like to know.

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