The word "imperialism" is used almost incessantly: about the war in Iraq, about Puritans, McDonalds, pioneers, trade agreements, environmental issues, culture wars. The word alone produced 5,632 responses in the Academic Search Premier. (For the sake of trivia, Google produced 641,000 hits.) It appears in articles on narratives, George Orwell, humanitarianism, archaeology, television, linguistics, soccer, architecture, Victorian shoppers, and detective novels. Article titles proclaim, "Naked Imperialism," "Closed-Door Imperialism," "The New Imperialism," "Female Imperialism and National Identity," and "Justice and
the Return of Imperialism."
I confess to a jaded response when I hear the word. It is applied so frequently and across so many topics that I no longer register it as anything more than an indication of the speaker's mood. "Oh, I guess they don't like that," I think. "They blamed it on imperialism."
So, I went to the dictionary to discover if the term ever did mean anything other than, "I hate whatever or whomever I am discussing."
It did. In 1603. Or rather, "imperialist" meant something. (Note: the word "imperial" is older than both "imperialism" and "imperialist" and appears to have been used mostly as a proper noun.) "Imperialist" referred to "an adherent of the (or an) emperor (usually 1600-1800, of the German Emperor); of the emperor's party." That is, the word once denoted a particular (proper noun) faction or group. Imperialists would have been troops or bureaucrats working for the Hapsburg emperor, who was historically linked to the Holy Roman Empire. The term was used accordingly until about 1670, when it seems to have disappeared until it surfaced in 1800 alongside "imperialism."
Ever since, both words have been used as bludgeoning tools.
To return to "imperialism," the word itself has an innocuous definition; innocuous, that is, if you don't consider words politically pulverizing in and of themselves--not that is until people throw them at you like flying piranhas and accuse you of single-handedly deforesting North America because you belong to an organized religion. The first definition is "An imperial system of government; the rule of an emperor, esp. when despotic or arbitrary" followed by the second definition, "The principle or spirit of empire; advocacy of what are held to be imperial interests," at which point the Oxford English Dictionary gets coy and admits that the word is often applied to America, American people, their rule and influence as well as their "acquiring and holding distant dependencies, in the way in which colonies and dependencies are held by European states."
Now considering the linkage with words like "despotic," it isn't surprising that "imperialism" doesn't have much of a positive connotation. What is surprising is how infrequently it has been used to actually refer to emperor-run systems of government. It was used censoriously about the (ancient) Roman Empire in 1861 and negatively about France in 1870 (Bonaparte was currently in power). But mostly, it was been directed at constitutional or democratic governments. In 1858, it was used to refer negatively to the British Empire. In 1873, Britain was excoriated again; in 1881, the Tory government, in particular, was reproved with the accusation of "imperialism."
At the end of the nineteenth century, "imperialism" went through a brief renovation. Americans, who don't much care for other people's bandwagons, no matter how much they like their own, decided to give the word a positive twist. In 1899, "imperialism" was used to refer to the American "empire of industry." In the same year, "sane imperialism" was differentiated from "wild-cat imperialism."
And then socialism came along and the word was reduced to an epithet once again. In 1918, 1939, and 1957, it was used to reproach the West. The cousin-word to imperialism, "imperialist," showed up in a 1967 reference to "imperialist-minded businessmen . . ." The West countered occasionally. The 1970 World Book Encyclopedia, which is far less coy than the Oxford English Dictionary, states under Imperialism, "Russia used communist subversion to gain 'satellites' in Asia and eastern Europe, but claimed that Western moves were 'imperialistic.' This claim won wide support among the peoples of Asia and Africa who oppose colonial imperialism, in spite of Russia's imperialistic actions." This is fairly tepid stuff when compared to Communist accusations like that of 1973: "a typical Western imperialist plot."
"Used disparagingly," explains the Oxford English Dictionary, which is something of an understatement. Unlike other words whose meanings vary over time (from positive to negative to positive) or who gain or lose sub-meanings, "imperialism" and "imperialist" have always been used, more or less, as verbal weapons. They are the signature of ultimate disgust: "It's so
imperialistic." Three hundred years from now, the words may even show up on a list of swears, completely devoid of all meaning (as they have already become to me).