Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Unique Word, Common Problem

By Supriya Savkoor

Every now and then, I learn a new word that I wonder how I couldn’t have known before. The one I learned most recently was completely new to me, despite it describing a common phenomenon in a great many modern cultures.

In fact, the word irredentism itself is fairly modern. It comes from the Italian word irrendentismo, meaning “unredeemed,” and originally refers to a popular movement to unify all Italian-speaking people within a national identity. The movement unofficially began when France annexed the then-Italian island of Corsica in 1768, followed soon after by Napoleon’s annexation of Tuscany, Piedmont, and Liguria. The Kingdom of Italy considered any community in which Italians, or a majority of a population speaking Italian, a part of this “unredeemed Italy,” and made it its mission to unify Italians, a movement that took off in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The term came into use in 1866, when the Kingdom of Italy fought its third war of independence against the Austrian Empire and won back Venezia (Venice). Three years later, it achieved the milestone win of Rome itself, where the papacy had reigned supreme for more than a thousand years.

Irredentism was the main reason Italy entered World War I, after which it reclaimed several more important territories, including Trieste and Istria. Fascist Italy in World War II began annexing even areas in which Italians were only a minority, and after the war, the movement slowed down altogether.

By then, the idea of nationalism was catching on big elsewhere, with unification movements springing up across Europe along linguistic, cultural, and ethnic lines. Nationalist movements and ethnic uprisings began challenging and ultimately breaking up the powers of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, leading to the independence of many “majority” linguistic groups we now know as Greece, Serbia, Moldova, Bulgaria, Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Slovakia, Ukrainia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Cyprus, Egypt, Sudan, Armenia, Libya, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey. These cultures formed national identities around their native tongue, including historic, folkloric, and literary traditions, and ultimately, around their common political aspirations.

Irrendentism plays a role in much of the world’s modern political challenges. When colonial powers redrew borders in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, many of the resultant states were unhappy by the artificially imposed national borders, conflicting historical claims, and ethnic groups splitting up between countries (such as the Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Yorubas between Nigeria and Benin).

An area claimed by more than one group is also considered irredentism, and no surprise, you’re already familiar with a bunch of them. China’s claim over Taiwan. The “tug of war” between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority over the West Bank and Gaza. India and Pakistan’s equal claims (and multiple wars) over Kashmir. Argentina’s longstanding claim over the Falkland Islands. The 2008 claim of independence by Kosovo. Greece’s claim over the name “Macedonia.” The now-resolved issue of Northern Ireland between the UK and Ireland.

The word appears in lots of white papers and policy briefs, along with such words as “nationalism” or even “revisionism.” And, of course, in the media. Surely now, you’ll see it more often, as I have. Such a big part of our world today, yet now that I know the precise word for it, it feels sadder somehow, perhaps a kind of proof that we’re trending toward splintering off rather than coming together?

Who knows. But as you contemplate my "new word" discovery, any words that surprised you or made you view the world a little differently? Do share.


  1. What a great idea. I will try to find a new word regularly now. And I will definitely follow your blog. Fascinating.

  2. Thanks, Marianne, very kind of you. Do share any enlightening new words with us, would you?