Interesting Etymologies: Radical, Dude!


Oftentimes, the most ubiquitous and innocuous of everyday words have the richest stories to tell. This is the case with the word “radical.” In common usage today, it has a colloquial history that reaches back into the 14th century, and a ramified journey that dates back to ancient Rome.

The origins of this word are grounded in the Latin radix, meaning “root.” For this reason, the square root symbol in mathematics (√) is called a radical, unpaired and highly reactive particles in chemistry are known as free radicals, and radical surgery is the process by which large swaths of tissue, fiber, and muscle are removed from the body in the hopes of scooping out whatever ails the patient.

The word “radical” had been used in this context – as a holistic or honed in method to reach the heart of the matter – for centuries before medieval philosophy harnessed it for its own purposes in the late 1300s. It was at that stage in the development of Western thought that the term “radical” came to mean not only a baseline, fundamental concept, but also an extreme, unwavering ideal. Ideas like radical skepticism leveraged the literal meaning of the word – a true and unadulterated root form of a philosophical concept – but also began to imply something extreme and unorthodox by merit of adhering so closely to literal meaning as to appear immoderate – or “radical” as we now know it. And from philosophy grew political ideology, wherein “radicals” aligned themselves with reformist ideals and strove to create change “from the roots up.” Even surfer slang from the 1970s and ‘80s piggybacked off of the understanding that unswerving adherence to root causes was laudable and wild.

Below are a few more unexpected instances of “radicalism” in everyday use.

Radish: from the Old English rædic, meaning “root.”

Eradicate: from the Latin eradicatus, meaning “to root out.”  In the late 18th century, “ineradicable” was coined to mean something that could not be rooted out or removed.

Licorice: a compound of the Greek glykys, meaning “sweet”, and rhiza, meaning “root.”  Yet another example of the twists and turns that language takes over time, rhiza and radix both find homes in the Proto-Indo-European language family tree.

Ramify: Used in the first paragraph of this article, it is a word with numerous meanings, all of which hearken back to its Latin origins.  If a radix was a root, a ramus was a branch.  For this reason, “ramifications” are the multitude of potential circumstances that could be spawned by an individual action, and “to ramify” is to spread, diverge, bifurcate, and stretch forth in teeming, unstoppable ways.

Photo Credit: The Pug Father via Flickr