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The word crusade, used as both noun and verb, derives from a Latin verb meaning “to mark with a cross.” Middle English adopted the Old French form, croisee. When the OF spelling shifted to croisade, English speakers started spelling it that way too. Finally, in the 18th century, the spelling was Anglicized to crusade.

The Crusades were European-led wars that began in the 11th century with the intention of recapturing Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land that had been conquered by Muslims in the 7th century, seven years after the death of Muhammad. The last attempt by a European king to recover the Christian sites was in 1272. The earliest OED citation for croisade in reference to these wars is dated 1557.

In the 18th century, crusade acquired a figurative meaning separate from the idea of a religious war. The noun came to mean “an aggressive movement against something perceived as a public evil.” The first documentation of this use occurs in 1786 in the writings of Thomas Jefferson: “Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance.”

For more than 200 years, crusade has served English speakers as a useful word to signify any kind of zealous support or opposition carried on in the name of the public good, for example:

Rep. Claude Pepper, who crusaded for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and was still championing the rights of the elderly a half-century later, died today at 88. 

For years, I’ve been on a crusade to help people boost their productivity by strengthening their writing so they can avoid the problems that come with sending unclear messages.

Klonsky is talking about the zealots, backed by multimillionaires, who are crusading against teachers’ unions as they claim to fight for the “reform” of public education.

Kentucky has now, by reason of this legislation, decided to become educated — and we have embarked on a crusade for that purpose.

Public School Crusaders Stake Out Rival Camps in Austin

Sunday Express launches crusade for better mental health

In the present political climate, the figurative use of crusade seems to be coming to an end as it joins others on the list of politically incorrect words:

Campus Crusade Changes Name to Cru
Ministry leaders worry that the word “crusade” has too many negative associations.

President Bush’s reference to a “crusade” against terrorism, which passed almost unnoticed by Americans, rang alarm bells in Europe.

Crusade is already coming in for criticism in some writing guides. This is from a UK university writing guide:

Example 1: Crusade against crime
Example 2: Campaign against crime

The word ‘crusade’ has connotations of a battle and is more aggressive in tone than the word ‘campaign’. ‘Campaign’ implies a more considered approach.

A style manual for Christian writers offers this advice:

The terms crusade and crusades are legitimate words in most contexts, although they should be avoided when used figuratively for Christian evangelism, modern military campaigns, or any effort to promote beliefs or values cross-culturally.

As Western government spokesmen and journalists take care to avoid the English word crusade, the Arabic borrowing jihad comes to mind. Like crusade in English, jihad has two meanings in its language of origin: “a holy war against unbelievers” and “a struggle or effort to do good.”

Here are some alternatives for politically correct writers who wish to phase out crusade in the figurative sense:

crusade (noun):

crusade (verb):

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5 thoughts on “Crusade”

  1. That means Batman can’t be the Caped Crusader anymore? Somehow Caped Campaigner does not sound heroic. At all.

    I have to object as loudly as possible whenever I see or hear a perfectly good word getting suppressed for political reasons. And that is exactly what political correctness is: Ideologically-motivated speech policing. Orwell stuff. It has no place in a democratic society, IMO. So now I am obligated to start using the word crusade– which I’ve never really used much before– just because of that! Jeez (is that okay to say?) On with the crusade against bad English!

  2. I’ve puzzled over this entry for several days and finally decided to at least put my concerns up here. All too often, “political correctness” gets used as a pet phrase that covers over deeper thinking. In the case of the Crusades, when one only has the history from the European side looks like it is all about standing up for right/good/God. When one looks more deeply, it was as much about adventuring and genocide as anything else. Being more careful in the circumstances where one uses the word “crusade” then might be an appropriately sensitive thing to do. (And THAT is what was the starting point of what gets derisively called “political correctness” today — stepping outside one’s own perspective and realizing that there are other ways to see reality. Learning to NOT be ethnocentric is not anti-democracy — it is very much pro-democracy as it realizes that reality is not just defined by one perspective — and if that is the sort of ideologically-motivated speech policing we are talking about here, then sign me up. Sometimes people get carried away, but to use such a revisionist definition of something –political correctness–that was intended to call people to THINK about what they were saying and writing and its impact on others and to use it to defend giving short shrift to understanding larger historical and cultural issues is sad. When Bush first used Crusade and it was highlighted as problematic was when he was trying to bring in Arab partners into a coalition and he was clueless as to why they had issues with his terminology (and his shady sense of history).

  3. @Cygnifier: Not sure if there is a difference between PC and sensitive, except that when people are derisive about PC, it is because it seems that one is forced to be OVERLY sensitive. I am at the point where I don’t know if I can use words like blind, deaf, retarded…people who are blind don’t like the word blind, people who are deaf don’t like the word deaf…there is a condition called “intrauterine growth retardation,” which really means the baby is unusually or unexpectedly small for gestational age, but now they have changed it to “intrauterine growth RESTRICTION,” as if using the word retardation was some kind of reflection on the baby’s intelligence or something…who knows. That seems to me to be overly sensitive or PC, versus as you said stepping into someone else’s shoes and trying to see things from their perspective and to feel what they feel, something that is often sorely lacking in today’s “ME FIRST” society.

  4. @thebluebird11 : Yes! You capture the horns of the dilemma well. Being sensitive is a GOOD thing and all of us need to learn to see better from the perspective of others, but there is definitely a point where it can become OVER sensitive. This notion that “perception IS meaning” seems to define perception from only one side and seems to ignore that we often mis-perceive: misperceive context, misperceive intent, misperceive vocabulary. In those cases, the moral isn’t “one person’s perception is everything,” but that “sometimes we are wrong in our perceptions and need to learn new ways of perceiving.” Unfortunately finding that line is very difficult and the ground underneath it seems unsteady — and most of us don’t like having our world views challenged (the “ME first” approach you mention), which is what is involved in trying to be sensitive.

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