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Seminar Keyword: Social

Social entered English in C14, in a translation of the Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden, denoting a war fought between allies. This usage persists only in the naming of a particular war fought between Rome and its allies, the Social War. The OED records a bridging sense in C15, “Devoted to home life; domestic,” though this sense is now obsolete.

This leans toward the positive sense, which emerges in mC16 and C17, to refer to a person with a friendly disposition, and, further, leads to usages like “Preaching…is…no ways upheld and Practic’d for the making People either better Men, more social Neighbours, or firmer in their Loyalty to the Prince” (R. Ferguson, View Ecclesiastick) to the sub-sense relating to the collective descriptor of a group of people, an organization, etc., which comes into common usage in lC18. In eC19, social butterfly first appears and persists today.

Social is interesting for its adjectival valence, which allows it to be attached to nouns and institutional properties, but it also attaches, as a prefix, to other adjectives, sometimes in the combinable form socio- (e.g., socio-economic or socio-political), with usages such as, “It is not from an anthropological or ethnological stand-point that our treatise proceeds but rather from a strictly sociological or socio-economic one,” (L.F. Ward, Dynamic Sociology) appearing as early as lC19.

In American usage, social (and more often socialist and socialism) begin to collocate with ‘Party’ and ‘Communist’ around the turn of C20, with ‘Soviet’ becoming one of the top five collocates shortly thereafter. This leads to a slight pejoration of socialist. An early example of a pejorative use of socialist dates to 1850: “Socialist theories…are now agitating all the great capitals of Europe, and menacing the whole continent with anarchy, if not with a return of barbarism” (North American Review).

A 1907 editorial in the New York Times anticipates Cold War-era fears of socialism and communism as possible challengers to American democracy, particularly in its tone of mistrust: “There is a great social unrest in this country. The Socialist Party is piling up more votes with every election.”

Usage of socialism and communism peaks between 1964-67, and gradually declines in the latter half of C20. However, in 2015, due greatly to Bernie Sanders’s run for the American presidency, social, socialism, and socialist experienced an uptick in usage, and the collocate democratic jumped from the 38th most used collocate from 2009-2014 to the number one most used collocate in American English, due in large part to spoken and printed news media covering the Sanders campaign, as in this question from the transcript of a 2015 CNN interview with Senator Sanders:

Now, some people say they won’t vote for you because you're a democratic socialist, and socialist has - is a very loaded term in this country. What can you do to sort of assuage people about the socialist label here?

Not only has socialism returned to American public discourse, but many young people have begun to self-identify as socialists, which suggests the beginning of a reversal of the pejoration that reached its peak in Cold War-era American distrust of socialism.

In 2004, social media was first cited in PR Newswire and has come to reflect a major driving engine of global culture. Social network, by contrast, appears as early as 1845, in J.B. Gough’s Autobiography: “I again became involved in a dissipated social network.” This sense appears as late as 1993, as in: “Patients with a strong will to live and a supportive social network are likely to survive traumatic illness better than those who are fatalistic and alone” (M. Ignatieff, Scar Tissue), while the sense referring to online networking sites appears earliest in 1998, in Business Wire: “Visitors can form online communities by exchanging information and experiences in chat rooms, forums, and online social networks.” While the internet has now made this term ubiquitous, the OED interestingly retains the online usage under the old sense: “a system of social interactions and relationships; a group of people who are socially connected to one another; (now also) a social networking website; the users of such a website collectively.”