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On “Sentient,” “Violent” and “Extremist”

I had many requests for "sentient," which I wrote about in "The Origin of 'Sentient'" in December of 2007. Though "violence" was an interesting read, I prefer "violent." Here are some highlights:

 A. adj.    I. 1. Of things: Having some quality or qualities in such a degree as to produce a very marked or powerful effect (esp. in the way of injury or discomfort); intense, vehement, very strong or severe:    a. Of the sun, heat, etc. violent signs.

This usage was first recorded in 1340 and continued for about 500 years ending with:

1864 SWINBURNE Atalanta 815 And thunder of storm on the sand,..Fierce air and violent light.

Violent can also be used as an adjective of poison, the blood, pain, disease, passions, taste, smell, or even color, as in:

1768 STERNE Sent. Journ., Le Dimanche. As the blue was not violent, it suited with the coat and breeches very well.

I'm sure you're familiar with this one:

2. a. Of natural forces: Possessed of or operating with great force or strength; moving, flowing, blowing, etc., strongly and impetuously.

Here's an example:

1593 SHAKES. Rich. II, II. i. 34 For violent fires soone burne out themselues.

The above can also pertain to noise.

Pertinent to our discussion is the tertiary definition:

3. a. Of persons: Acting with or using physical force or violence, esp. in order to injure, control, or intimidate others; committing harm or doing destruction in this way; acting illegally, taking illegal possession.

The first literary instance is in 1382, and this idea extends to the idea of laying violent hands upon as well as violent death.

Next is a rather interesting one that arrived in the 1300s and makes me want to look up "harm" and "injury."

4. Of actions:    a. Characterized by the doing of harm or injury; accompanied by the exercise of violence.

1809-10 COLERIDGE Friend (1865) 140 There could be no motive for a sudden and violent change of government.

 b. Characterized by the exertion of great physical force or strength; done or performed with intense or unusual force, and with some degree of rapidity; not gentle or moderate.

 c. Tending to wrest or pervert the meaning.

1720 WATERLAND Eight Serm. 104 That we ought not to be wise beyond what is written, nor put a violent Construction on any Passages.

There's a lot of talk of physical force, rage and constraint, as you might imagine, but there's also talk of violent as intense or severe. Most recently (1983), we have taken to using violent as a noun in this manner:

J. SCOTT All Pretty People ii. 12 The psychiatric wards are filled with violents, and they release them every day. 

Finally, an "extremist" is . . .

One who is disposed to go to the extreme, or who holds extreme opinions; a member of a party advocating extreme measures. Also attrib. or as adj. Hence extremism, the views or actions of extremists; extremistic a., of or pertaining to extremists or extremism.

Extremistic? That's a new one to me.

Beginning in 1846 and continuing into the 20th century. Most of the examples aren't that helpful, but I like this one:

1856 OLMSTED Slave States 177 The extremists of the South esteem their opponents as madmen, or robbers.

For me, that speaks to another part of the conversation, which is extreme=loony or criminal.

I hope that helps.

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