<< back to the archive list

May 25th, 2005

Radical conservatives / e-mails or e-mail?

by Barbara Wallraff

Chris Philippo, of Troy, N.Y., writes: “I keep reading and hearing about ‘radical conservatives,’ ‘radical Republicans,’ ‘radical Islam’ and so forth. I had always thought extremism of the right was called ‘reactionary’ and extremism of the left ‘radical.’ Was I wrong in thinking that?”

Dear Chris: Well, Karl Marx would say you were right -- but these days he’s not an especially useful ally. “Reactionary” was originally a Marxist term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Since it was used mainly by leftists, it was uncomplimentary. Any conservatives who called themselves “reactionaries” either weren’t paying attention to nuance or meant it ironically -- the way, for instance, 20 or 30 years ago a man with old-fashioned manners might have cheerfully called himself a “male chauvinist.”

“Reactionary” describes people who dig in their heels, react against change and want to see it reversed. “Radical” in the political sense describes people eager for deep, fundamental change; it is derived from a Latin word meaning “root.” All three phrases you mention -- “radical conservatives,” “radical Republicans” and “radical Islam” -- are seen much more often now than they were a decade or two ago. But that’s because society itself is now different. Both conservative Republicans and conservative Muslims are now likelier to think of their goal as changing society in fundamental ways, as opposed to reversing changes already made.

Though references to radicals of the right are more common than they used to be, they aren’t actually new. For instance, here’s a snippet from a column by Russell Baker that was published in 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency: “The ideologues are thinking of the future and who will inherit the party. Will it be the ultraconservative conservatives or the radical conservatives?”

Helen Bronskill, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “When I pick up my mail from my mailbox, there may be several ‘letters.’ When I open my mailbox on my computer, there may be several ‘e-mails.’ What is the problem with the plural?”

Dear Helen: Some people continue to resist the plural “e-mails” because we don’t use the plural “mails” in the same way. (“There were several mails in my mailbox”? Uh, no.) But it’s not just our communication systems that evolve -- our language does too. Contemporary dictionaries are perfectly happy with “e-mails” as a plural. You wouldn’t necessarily know it, though, because few of them show you plural forms that are regular -- that is, plurals that are formed by adding an “s” to the end of the word. What’s more, neither do dictionaries come out and say that a word like plain old “mail” is rarely used in the plural. You’re expected to figure that out from the definitions given. For instance, one definition in the American Heritage Dictionary for “mail” is “materials, such as letters and packages, handled in a postal system” -- which is to say “mail” refers to all that stuff collectively. But a meaning given for “e-mail” is “a message or messages sent or received by [an electronic system]” -- which is to say “e-mail” can refer to them individually (“a message” is an e-mail, and two messages would be two e-mails) as well as collectively (“messages” are e-mail).

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list