The curious beginnings
of a useless word
by Sam Francis, 1999
The Oxford English Dictionary is a multivolume
reference work that is one of Western scholarship's most remarkable achievements -- the
standard dictionary of the English language on what are known as "historical
principles". Unlike most dictionaries, the OED also provides information
on the first historical appearance and usage of words. The range of the
erudition in the OED is often astounding, but for AR readers, one of its
most interesting entries is for the word "racism".
According to the second edition (1989) of the OED, the earliest known
usage of the word "racism" in English occurred in a 1936 book by the American
"fascist", Lawrence Dennis, The Coming American Fascism. The second
usage of the term in English that the OED records is in the title of a
book originally written in German in 1933 and 1934 but translated into
English and first published in 1938 -- Racism by Magnus Hirschfeld,
translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. Since Hirschfeld died in 1935, before
the publication of Dennis' book the following year, and had already used
the word extensively in the text and title of his own book, it seems only
fair to recognize him rather than Dennis as the originator of the word
"racism". In the case of the word "racist" as an adjective, the OED ascribes
the first known usage to Hirschfeld himself. Who was Magnus Hirschfeld
and what did he have to tell us about "racism"?
Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) was a German-Jewish medical scientist
whose major work was in the field of what came to be known as "sexology" -- the
scientific study of sex. Like Havelock Ellis in England and Alfred Kinsey
in the United States, Hirschfeld was not only among the first to collect
systematic information about sexuality but also was an apostle of sexual
"liberation". His major work was a study of homosexuality, but he also
published many other books, monographs, and articles dealing with sex.
He wrote a five-volume treatise on "sexology" as well as some 150 other
works and helped write and produce five films on the subject.
It is fair to say that his works were intended to send a message–that
traditional Christian and bourgeois sexual morality was repressive, irrational,
and hypocritical, and that emancipation would be a major step forward.
His admiring translators, Eden and Cedar Paul, in their introduction to
write of his "unwearying championship of the cause of persons who, because
their sexual hormonic functioning is of an unusual type, are persecuted
by their more fortunate fellow-mortals." Long before the "sexual revolution"
of the 1960s, Magnus Hirschfeld was crusading for the "normalization" of
homosexuality and other abnormal sexual behavior.
There is speculation that Leon Trotsky may have invented the word "racist."