As the candidates run for the US presidency, there’s one word many are running against (and from): establishment. We see the term especially used for the mainstream Republican party, though Bernie Sanders is increasingly positioning himself against a Democratic establishment. What established this word establishment, etymologically speaking?
The English language first sets up establishment in the late 15th century. Early on, establishment named a “settled arrangement,” particularly a legal one. In the tumultuous wake of the Reformation in the 1600s, the word often appeared in religious contexts, such as the establishment of a church sanctioned by the state. Come the 1700s and 1800s, we see the word referring to the Church Establishment, or simply the Establishment, like the Church of England.
(We can also speak of disestablishing a church. If we support such disestablishment, we are disestablishmentarians, advocating disetablishmentarianism. And if we oppose disetablishmentarianism? Why, we back antidisetablishmentarianism. All of this centers on late 19th-century efforts to disestablish the Church of England as the official state church. The record for antidisetablishmentarianism really just cites it as a very long word and not one with meaningful or widespread use outside of grade-school know-it-alls.)
In the 1900s, establishment’s power widened, with early references to “the dominant social order” cited in the 1920s and 1930s. The textbook citation for the modern establishment, however, comes from journalist Henry Fairlie in 1955. In London’s The Spectator, Fairlie commented:
By the ‘Establishment’ I do not mean only the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.
Later, across the Atlantic, liberal Republicans – associated with elite, East Coast institutions like Wall Street and Harvard, sometimes called Rockefeller Republicans – were disparaged as the “Eastern Establishment” in the 1960s, perhaps anticipating the pejorative currency of the term that surged with the Tea Party in the 2000s.
At the core of establishment is establish, of course. Dated to the late 1300s, the English word has French footing: establir, which variously meant “to set up.” We can take this establir back to Latin, French’s lexical establishment. Latin had stabilīre, “to make stable,” grounded in the same root of English’s own stable: stabilis, “steady,” “secure,” or, for the lack of better gloss, “stable.” And standing tall in stable is the root verb, stāre, “to stand.” This verb, stāre, also yields a great many English words, like station and constant. A stable for horses ultimately comes from stabulum, also related to this “standing” stem of stā-.
This 2016 race is definitely shifting the political ground, leaving us all wondering – etymology aside – just how stable the establishment will prove to be.