Red Letter Day: the lexical impact of the October Revolution
The Bolsheviks knew the power of words, from Vladimir Lenin’s famously fiery speeches to popular slogans like ‘Peace, land, bread!’ and ‘All power to the Soviets!’ (To be fair, they sound catchier in Russian.) To mark the passing of a century since the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power on 7 November 1917 (25 October in the old Julian calendar), we’re taking a look at English words with origins in the Revolution and the early Soviet Union.
In the years following the October Revolution, Bolshevism was synonymous with revolution. Before long, the terms Bolshevik and Bolshevist were applied not just to Russian revolutionaries, but to anyone regarded as subversive, destructive, or egregious – from modern writers, to disobedient horses, to strong cheese.
Oxford English Dictionary, Bolshevist, n.
Bolshevik spawned a veritable Red Army of English derivatives such as Bolshevistic, Bolshevistically, and Bolshevize. The humorous coinage to bolsh meant simply ‘to revolt’, and bolshie or bolshy, as well as being a contemptuous term for a Bolshevik, quickly came to mean ‘aggressive, uncooperative, truculent’, and is still current in British English today. Even I was once a bolshie teenager!
Numerous Russian terms from the early Soviet regime – lexical émigrés* – crossed the linguistic border into English and built new lives here. Agitprop, a Russian word combining agitacija (political agitation or campaigning) and propaganda, was soon borrowed into English, where it has come to denote political propaganda of any flavour, especially in the form of plays and song lyrics. Another Soviet portmanteau, politburo (the highest policy-making committee of the Soviet government), can now be applied in English to the governing body of any organization or state. A party official or a corporate manager may be referred to as an apparatchik, the Russian word for an official or agent of the Communist apparat (party machine). A commissar is a person perceived as authoritarian, autocratic, or inflexible, and comes from komissar, a Soviet government minister or political overseer. The English spelling, with a c and two ms, is in line with our many other commiss- words.
In typically revolutionary fashion, Bolshevik terminology has also commandeered existing English vocabulary and given it new meaning. Since the October Revolution, comrade (which in the late 19th century had already begun to take on a new identity as a form of address in socialist circles) has become a firmly established term for ‘a fellow communist or socialist’. In the 1920s a fellow-traveller, once just a travelling companion, became a communist sympathizer, following Lenin’s use of the semantically similar word poputčik. Now a fellow-traveller can be a sympathizer of any person or cause, from FDR to UKIP.
Perhaps most famously, something that is communist or radically socialist is red, the symbolic colour of the Bolshevik party; similarly, a person can be called a red. Since the late 19th century, and especially after the October Revolution, socialism and communism have been referred to in the West as the red peril or red menace. During the Cold War red-hunting politicians were inclined to see reds under the bed, and many Americans were concerned about red-diaper children—that is, the children of communist or left-wing parents. Liberals or moderate socialists were called pinks, and more derogatorily pinkos, as early as the 1920s. There is evidence of pinko being used slightly earlier than this to mean ‘drunk’; presumably that has nothing to do with the intoxicating influence of socialist ideas!
*The word émigré was revived in English to denote political dissidents leaving the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for Western Europe.