Propaganda is not a popular thing now. Oh, it’s common enough, but no one wants the information they propagate to be called propaganda. Propaganda is lies! Disinformation! A salmagundi of improper reasoning and puffery propped up like a Potemkin village for the impressionable to gander at!

And we tend to associate it with totalitarian regimes – communist propaganda is a common collocation. I don’t doubt that many people think of it as really a concept that came about in the 20th century. I suspect some people even think it’s a Russian word. (I have no evidence that anyone thinks it’s the national airline of Uganda, but I suppose by just mentioning that idea I’ve planted it like a seed in fertile minds.)

None of this is altogether true, and some of it is altogether false.

The first English use of propaganda came through an office of the Vatican. The foreign mission office of the Roman Catholic Church was known, from its founding in 1622 until 1967, as the Congregation of the Propaganda, or just the Propaganda for short. (No, they didn’t change the name because someone saw the pagan in the middle.) Now, why would they admit that what they were doing was propaganda? Because it wasn’t until a couple of centuries later that the word even began to have negative overtones. Check your Latin knowledge: a memorandum is something that is to be remembered, a referendum something to be referred; agenda are things to do; QED stands for quod est demonstrandum, ‘which is the thing to be demonstrated’; the famous phrase delenda est Carthago (and variations thereon) means ‘Carthage is to be destroyed’. So propaganda is what? …Things to be propagated.

And what is the origin of propagate, by the way? It’s pro ‘forward, outward’ plus the stem of pangere ‘fix, fasten, plant’; it means ‘reproduce plants, animals, etc.’ Plant seeds, or impregnate, or or or. Be fruitful and multiply. Not just disseminate, which means ‘spread seed’, but actually make sure the seed takes root.

The sense of ‘spreading information to promote a particular cause or point of view’ comes from the early 1800s. Now, the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, and we know that communist movements considered propaganda important. That’s one reason the word has such a negative tone now. But they just wanted to spread the word of their ideas, just like Ayn Rand thereafter did with her completely opposite ones in her books. And Marx’s manifesto may have come out in 1848, but communism wasn’t invented by it; the Oxford English Dictionary has this 1842 quote from the Communist Chronicle & Communitarian Apostle: “The propaganda fund shall be devoted to the propagation of the doctrines of communism.”

But the word was already in common use as such by then; propaganda war and propaganda warfare have OED citations from 1838 and 1840. And Thomas Carlyle used it in 1822 – italicized as a Latin borrowing, however. The word was used in positive and negative senses into the 20th century, though it gained a negative tone sooner in the US than in Europe, likely because of stronger anti-communist attitudes there.

It’s a fun word to use, with its 4/4 rhythm, opening with a double pop and then the softer bounce off the back and tip of the tongue. I like the look, too: the prop is straight descenders and open circles; the aganda switches from o’s to a’s and it first curves the descender and then turns it upside down to be an ascender. Such a transformation! And so misleading, because the morphological – and true syllabic – break is before the second p, but phonologically we think of it as breaking after the p, which makes the o “short” and makes us think of it as a mixture of prop and something like agenda. Sometimes no one needs to try to mislead us; often enough, our habits of thought and action conduce quite naturally to planting a seed that propagates itself.

2 responses to “propaganda

  1. No discussion of “propaganda” would be complete without mentioning James Thurber’s “The Very Proper Gander” from Fables for Our Time.

  2. Hi James,

    Dianne Fowlie sent me your review of propaganda. Both propaganda and its cousin,proselytize, have modern meanings that differ somewhat from the original, and cannot be ignored. Most recently came across “missionize”, presumably as a replacenent for the original use of proselytize.

    Propaganda is a more musical word, proselytize has a sleazier sound, like something that should be done behind closed doors.

    Shifts in meaning are, as you know, commonplace. A good example would be democracy. The founding fathers of the United States did not want a democracy, their intention was to build a republic. Today’s usage of democracy is as a synonym for that original definition of republic.


    Alan Sidorov

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