This article is a preview from the Autumn 2017 edition of New Humanist.

Corbynista (from British political journalism, 2015)

One way in which English is a very flexible tool is that we can put prefixes and suffixes on the beginnings and ends of words. You can be democratic or autocratic. You can be pitiful and pitiless. You can also be playful with them which seems to be how words like “clubbable” (from the 1700s) come about.

The Battle of Hastings had many consequences, but one of them was that the language spoken by the majority of inhabitants of England at the time, Old English or Anglo-Saxon, took on some French suffixes. There are plenty of the Old English ones still in use, like: -dom, -ship, -less, -y, -ness, -ful, -ward, -wise. With people intertwining and blending Norman French into English, they added such French suffixes as -able (and variants), -ance (and variants), -ary/-ory, -ist, -ise, -ment and -er/-or/-eur.

The first time I heard an -ista was in Ewan MacColl’s song about the Cuban revolution, in which he rhymes “Batista” (the deposed dictator) with “Fidelistas”, for followers of Fidel Castro. The Cubans, of course, speak Spanish, and putting an “-ista” on the end of a word is as natural for them as it is for English speakers to use an “ist”. The origins for both Spanish and English speakers go back to Latin, though the route for us came via those Normans again.

Apart from the Fidelistas, the first famous “istas” to be mentioned in non-hispanic circles were the Sandinistas, the Nicaraguan revolutionary movement who came to prominence in the 1970s. Clearly not all Guardian readers can be cast in the mould of the Sandinistas, but “Guardianistas” works for jokesmiths on the right, hoping to lump quite mainstream liberal types in with every radical tendency to have existed since Wat Tyler.

Whoever first used “Corbynista” perhaps hoped the -ista would do a similar job. If that was the case, I suspect that this bit of nicknaming has backfired. From being mocked for being too geography-teacher-like, Corbyn has turned into a leader capable of exciting crowds of tens of thousands. Far from finding Corbynista a sneery term, I would guess that most Corbyn supporters quite enjoy the feel.