Inside the “establishment”

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?

I suppose you should put on some good shoes if you want to be left standing in this anti-establishment campaign. “Establishment.” Doodle by me, shoes by Florsheim.


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, stārealso 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.

m ∫ r ∫

24 thoughts on “Inside the “establishment”

  1. Owen Jones’s book the Establishment though only about the politics of the Establishment, in Britain in particular, doesn’t go into the etymology. It could have benefited with a brief note on the etymology.
    This is a smashing blog. I always liked David Bohm’s books as he used to go into the etymology of words to champion for a more direct manner of our perception of things. Whether or not it does ubiquitously it is fascinating. I’ll definitely be keeping up to date with your posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The word “antidisetablishmentarianism” has always bothered me. I have a keen interest in the English vernacular and have always used the “root word” method to further analyze and comprehend the origin and meaning of many words, so the use of double negative prefixes seems very odd to me. Why not drop the two prefixes and just call the movement establishmentarianism. Seems they are more or less the same! If I oppose the opposition of the other side am I not then on the same side or do I end up on the side opposite of my side and thus oppose myself ? I am interested to hear what others think. Of coarse lets face it in any other context the word makes as much sense as saying undisconnected.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve shared your thoughts, indeed. So, why not “establishmentarianism”? Well, English actually does have “establishmentarianism” and it occurs around the same time as “disestablishmentarianism.” “Antidisestablishmentarianism” really just lives on as a so-called big word, so “establishmentarianism” and “disestablishmentarianism” have disappeared in the sands of time. That said, “antidisestablishmentarianism,” while the double negative prefixes may be awkward, does tell its story: “I’m against those who are against disestablishing the already established church.”


  3. Amazing! I love etymology and often find myself guessing at word roots. Off to read the rest of your blog now. I agree with the other commenter too- it does seem odd and unnecessary to introduce a double negative word into the language? Surely that’s the only one?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m so happy to have been led to “discover” your blog. I am obsessed with words and their roots. My post-graduate school work included three linguistics courses that I loved. As an English as a New Language teacher, I teach meaning, usage and roots of words. Best job ever (not counting writing, but no money involved in that yet, ha) working with high school students. I don’t do nearly the research that you do, nor do I claim to be an expert, but language is definitely my thing. Great post.


    1. “Re-” generally means “back” or “again,” say “return” or “redo.” Sometimes, though, it can signify “anew.” So, “refresh” and “renovate.” In these situations, they suggest, well, a kind of restoration.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What I was getting at but didn’t articulate well at all in my previous comment, is that I’m wondering if there are words that we just don’t use anymore but do use the root word with the prefix re-. For example, “renege.” I know that neg comes from Latin and means deny or not and is the root word for a lot of words. We say “renege” but has anyone ever neged? Was that once a word and now we only have the prefix re- but the original word is out of usage? I come across these and think “I wonder…….”


      2. Ah, I hear your question. (From what I’m finding and for what it’s worth, there was once a verb “nege”, “to deny,”, now obsolete and originally very rare.) We can pose the question of other presuppositions, too. We can “postpone,” in India (I believe) they cleverly speak of “prepone,” but we never “pone” (there are noun forms of the word, though). I’m guess it’s all about 1) the accident of language, as so much is up to just the chance of human speech and history and 2) necessity (did “nege” meaningfully serve a linguistic need not served but other words?). GREAT question.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Fantastic read. I distinctly remember being one of those intollerable grade-school know-it-alls until we started studying chemistry properly and I was forced to give up on the longest words.


    1. Yup. Some knows-more-know-it-all would drop “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” Then some knows-even-more-know-it-all would say, “That’s just the longest word in the dictionaries.”

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The OED’s first citation for the modern sense of “establishment” comes from Rose Macaulay’s “Told by an Idiot”: ” The moderns of one day become the safe establishments of the next.” Precisely your point.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much for this amazing blog! I love to write and as such I am always looking into the history of words. I love that this is what your blog does. And I have always been a fan of the word antidisestablishmentarianism simply because in grade school I was a total know-it-all. Thanks for making words fun!


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