Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origin of words in the news. Read previous columns here.
The very word “propaganda” has become something of a rhetorical weapon, with the Kremlin dismissing reports of atrocities perpetrated by Russian military forces, such as the massacre of civilians in the town of Bucha, as nothing more than ” Ukrainian propaganda”.
As a term for information aimed at influencing people to accept a cause or point of view, “propaganda” long predates modern political warfare. In fact, the word has its roots in the Roman Catholic Church from 400 years ago.
““Propaganda” acquired a secular meaning at the end of the 18th century.”
On June 22, 1622, Pope Gregory XV issued a papal bull establishing a committee of cardinals to oversee Catholic missions abroad, called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. At the time, the Latin word “propaganda” was a neuter term, meaning simply “to spread” or “to extend”, a form of the verb “to propagate”.
In their contribution to “The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies”, Maria Teresa and Thomas A. Prendergast, professors of English at the College of Wooster in Ohio, argue that the papal edict helped transform “propaganda” into ” something close to its modern meaning”. to actively spread its ideological truths to those who are either ignorant of these truths or allied with other quite opposite truths.
Early in use in English and other European languages, the work of the Committee of Cardinals retained its Latin title, shortened to “Propaganda Fide” or simply “Propaganda”. Those sent to Catholic missions around the world were sometimes called “propaganda missionaries.” The historic seat of the committee is still on Via di Propaganda in Rome.
At the end of the 18th century, “propaganda” began to be used in a more secular way. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1790 letter from Scottish writer James Macpherson to George, Prince of Wales (later King George IV). Warning against the radical ideas of the French revolutionaries, McPherson wrote: “All kings have, at this moment, a new breed of suitors to fight, the disciples of propaganda in Paris.
Even before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848, proponents of communism used “propaganda” to refer to the dissemination of their ideas. An 1842 notice in the Communist Chronicle & Communitarian Apostle read: “The Propaganda Fund shall be devoted to the propagation of the doctrines of Communism.
Use of the term skyrocketed in the early 20th century with the rise of mass media, such as radio and cinema. In the Soviet Union, techniques of “agitation” and “propaganda” were deployed to shape public opinion, with the formation of the Central Committee’s Agitation and Propaganda Section in the early 1920s. Soviet labels, which have been shortened to a combination of initial syllables: “agitprop”, used especially for propaganda art or literature.
Meanwhile, in the United States, “propaganda” was acquiring a more pejorative implication. A 1924 Scientific American editorial lamented that a “sinister significance” had been attached to an “otherwise perfectly sound word, of honest parentage, and with an honorable history”. However, the negative connotations would only grow with World War II fascist propaganda efforts.
As late as 1954, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested in a sermon that “there is a noble sense in which ‘propaganda’ can be used” to spread Christian teachings. While this “higher sense” may have been abandoned, propaganda as a strategy of persuasion is more prevalent than ever. As Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor, says, “Propaganda is everywhere and everyone uses propaganda.”
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