The Grammarphobia Blog

Supremacist or supremist?

Q: Is it just me, or is the term “supremacist” mispronounced as “supremist” more often than not these days? It’s driving me nuts. I was about to punch a wall, but decided to write you instead.

A: The word “supremacist” has only two standard pronunciations, suh-PREM-a-cist or soo-PREM-a-cist, according to the 10 dictionaries we’ve checked. However, people are indeed using a shorter word, “supremist,” in writing as well as speech.

Although you won’t find “supremist” in standard dictionaries, it’s been used in the same sense as “supremacist” since the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(In fact, “supremist” showed up back in the 1600s with a different meaning—someone who assumes supreme authority—but the OED says that sense is now obsolete or rare.)

It turns out that “supremacist” and “supremist” appeared in writing around the same time in phrases that referred to people who believed whites were superior to others.

The earliest Oxford example for “supremacist” is from the April 5, 1896, issue of the Daily Picayune in New Orleans:

“The combine are determined to register the negroes, and the white supremacists are equally determined that they shall not.”

And the dictionary’s earliest racial citation for “supremist” is from the April 6, 1896, issue of the Daily Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper:

“The ‘white supremists,’ or regular Democrats, say that the negroes shall not register.”

The racial sense of “supremacist” and “supremist” probably showed up even earlier in speech, but the use of quotation marks around “white supremists” suggests that it may have been less common than “white supremacists.”

The OED explains that “supremist” was formed by adding the suffix “-ist” to the adjective “supreme,” while “supremacist” was the result of adding the suffix to the noun “supremacy.”

Both “supremacist” and “supremist” are ultimately derived from suprēmus, classical Latin for highest in position, topmost, culminating, and so on.

Getting back to your question, “supremacist” is overwhelmingly more popular than “supremist” today, according to searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the British National Corpus, and News on the Web, a huge database of articles from online newspapers and magazines.

So “supremacist” is still supreme, despite your concerns, though people are indeed using “supremist.” Here are a few recent examples:

“White supremist supporter James Alex Fields Jr drove his car through the anti-racist crowd, injuring 19 people and killing Heather Heyer” (from an Aug. 17, 2017, item on the Mac Observer website).

“Antifa and white supremist rallies” (a headline in the Aug. 15, 2017, issue of the Washington Times).

“An avowed white supremist killed six people at a Sikh Temple in 2012” (from the Aug. 3, 2017, issue of the Houston Chronicle).

Is “supremist” legit? Well, it’s as old as “supremacist,” and the OED doesn’t describe it as nonstandard. But we wouldn’t use it. And we wouldn’t describe a word that hasn’t made it into standard dictionaries as standard.

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