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Word of the Week: 'conservative'


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘conservative’


Theresa May has announced her withdrawal from Number 10, meaning her fellow conservatives are, to put it formally, dancing on her political grave – no doubt to the tune of Abba’s Dancing Queen.

This all comes after the Conservative party experienced the worst election result in their 185-year history during the European Parliamentary elections. Chewed up and spat out by Nigel Farage’s imaginatively-named Brexit party, the Tories ended up in fifth place – leading many members to fear for the future existence of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

At the time of writing there are several candidates hoping to battle it out for the position of top Tory dog, with the ‘blonde bombshell’ Bojo currently installed as the bookies’ favourite to win.

Meanwhile, in internet land, the question “who can vote in conservative leadership contest?” has become a breakout search on Google Trends (meaning the search increased by 5000% or more) – prompting us to investigate the roots and definitions of the ‘C’ word, in both its lower- and upper-case common usages.

What does ‘conservative’ mean?

There are a range of definitions of ‘conservative’. One is: ‘not usually liking or trusting change, especially sudden change’ (insert Brexit joke here).

Another, related, sense of the word is to be ‘traditional in style or manner, avoiding novelty or showiness’. Bojo, it seems, did not get the memo about that one

The phrase, ‘strong and stable’ springs to mind, while ‘conservative’ can also extend to a person’s sense of style. 

The synonyms listed for ‘conservative’ are amusing and far-reaching, ranging from ‘cautious’, to ‘reactionary’, ‘fuddy duddy’ to ‘fogyish’ and ‘white bread’ to ‘hard hat’ (potentially relating to its status as a symbol of safety). Who knew?

Another, more technical definition of ‘conservative’ by the Cambridge Dictionary is ‘belonging to or supporting the British political party that traditionally supports business and opposes high taxes and government involvement in industry’.

As ever, the Urban Dictionary offers their typically idiosyncratic take: ‘someone who loves the 1800s too much’. The UD (that’s the down-with-the-kids term for Urban Dictionary, by the way) is curiously on the money with this one, with Conservative MP and prominent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg recently publishing a 500-page biography titled: The Victorians.

But where did it all begin? It stems from the late Latin, ‘conservativus’, meaning ‘to keep, conserve or guard’, before it transformed into ‘conservatyf’ in Middle French. The word more widely came to be understood as ‘the opposition of change or progress’ by the 1840s. 

The ‘Conservative’ party

The term ‘conservative’ came to be attributed to the political party back in the 18th century, with political theorist Edmund Burke thought to be the father of ‘conservative’ thought. 

It was his fierce opposition to the French Revolution in 1790 – coupled with a healthy fear of mob rule – that led his French supporters to start using the term to describe his values. Back in blighty in 1834, ‘Conservative’ then replaced ‘Tory’ (now the party’s shorthand) as the official name of the club.

Before we sign off, there is of course another (small ‘c’) definition of conservative, as in a guess or calculation ‘likely to be less than the real amount’ – a bit like how the public underestimated just how many candidates would be vying for Tory leadership, perhaps?