Supremist, Supremacist, and Agent Nouns

By Maeve Maddox

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Reader venqax poses a question about the use of the four-syllable agent noun supremacist in preference to three-syllable supremist.

On the topic of “new” words, I’m curious about *supremacist*, as in the apparently omnipresent white supremacists. Why not “supremist”? There is often a quick response to unnecessary elongations like preventative and orientate (talking to Americans! Calm down!). Supremacist seems like a perfect candidate for the same criticism. Plus, it has the added downside of being hard to say.

Like venqax, I also wondered why supremacist eclipsed supremist as the preferred word to mean,

[a]n advocate of, or believer in, the supremacy of a particular group, esp. one defined by race, religion, or sex; a person whose behaviour is motivated by, or is intended to enforce in practice, this belief.—OED

In an effort to learn “why not supremist,” I reviewed the use of the –ist suffix in English.

Creating agent nouns
The suffix –ist is used to create an agent noun—a noun that denotes someone or something that does something. Two suffixes more commonly used to create agent nouns are –er and –or, as in worker, bookseller, beginner, visitor, creator, and accelerator.

The English suffix –ist has corresponding suffixes in other languages—iste in French, ista in Italian and Latin. Some English –ist words came into English from French, Italian, Latin or Greek. Others—like supremacist and supremist— were formed by adding –ist to words already in English.

Here are some common agent nouns ending in –ist, together with their meanings and source words:

lyricist: A writer of lyrics (lyric+ist)

physicist: An expert in or student of physics (physic+ist)

classicist: A student of, or expert in, the classics; an advocate of classical education. (classic+ist)

moralist: A teacher or student of morals; a writer on morals; a moral philosopher. (moral + ist)

satirist: a person who satirizes someone or something. (satire+ist)

baptist: one who baptizes (Old French baptiste, < Latin baptista )

hedonist: one who regards pleasure as the chief good. (hedonism + ist)

fascist: A person who behaves in a manner perceived as autocratic, intolerant, or oppressive; esp. one who advocates a particular viewpoint or practice in a manner that seeks to enforce conformity. (Italian Fascista)

atheist: one who denies or disbelieves the existence of God (French athéiste or Italian atheista)

exorcist: one who drives out evil spirits by solemn adjuration. (Latin exorcista)

Agent nouns formed with –ist often have corresponding verbs in –ize:

apologist/apologize
exorcist/exorcize
baptist/baptize
plagiarist /plagiarize

Back to supremacist and supremist
So, why supremacist and not supremist?

The words mean the same thing, but one comes from an adjective and one from a noun. Both were coined with their present meanings at about the same time.

The Ngram Viewer indicates that single word supremist first appeared in print in 1860 and was quickly followed by supremacist in 1862. The phrase “white supremacist,” on the other hand, precedes “white supremist” by 60 years: 1871 and 1931, respectively. Both are still used, but “white supremacy” shoots to the top of the Ngram graph in the1940s.

Fraze.it brings up only six examples of supremist compared to 443 examples of supremacist. Likewise, on Google, hits for supremacist are in the millions, compared to supremist hits in the thousands.

Unlike the case with preventative and orientate, the “extra” syllable in supremacist is not gratuitous. It’s there because the word is formed from the noun supremacy. Supremist comes from supreme.

It may be that unconsciously associating the word with racist is what made me feel that supremacist had an extra, unnecessary syllable. Now that I associate it with supremacy, I find that it sounds all right to my ear.

(I still agree with venqax that preventative and orientate are best avoided in American usage.)

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