In a Word: Propaganda!

Propaganda has come a long and dark way from its origins in the Catholic Church.


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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.


The Age of Discovery — from the 15th to the mid-17th century — opened the world to new exchanges of products, cultures, and languages. It also opened millions of “heathen” people to proselytizing and conversion by the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the 16th century, such missionary work was largely handled by Spain and Portugal, with little direct guidance from Rome.

But Pope Gregory XV wasn’t happy with that. He believed that because Rome was the highest seat in the Catholic Church, it ought to have a stronger role in religious outreach. So on June 22, 1622, Gregory XV issued a papal bull that established the Congregatio de propaganda fide (the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), a committee comprising 13 cardinals, 2 prelates, and a secretary who were to be the ultimate arbiters of ecclesiastical affairs in non-Catholic countries.

In short, the committee was in charge of spreading and glorifying Catholic doctrine around the world. The committee was sometimes referred to informally as just Propaganda, from the Latin verb propagare “to propagate.”

Propaganda in this specific ecclesiastical sense appears in English writing during the 1700s, but by the late 18th century and through the 19th century, a more generic sense of propaganda propagated, applying to the strategic dissemination of any type of principle or doctrine. The term was often used contemptuously, but its negative connotation didn’t become so widespread and hard-core until World War I, when propaganda became an important tactic for all sides.

During World War II and in all conflicts since, propaganda has become an important and common aspect of psychological warfare. Subject to exaggeration and often outright lies, it focuses on sparking emotional reactions — to the detriment of logical thought.


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  1. Very interesting feature on propaganda and its origins. Although I’ve long known what it means (in the modern sense), it never came up much in school. It really should have with all the back and forth public to Catholic schooling I had Andy; honest to God.


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