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PURISM. Scrupulous observance of, or insistence on, purity or correctness in LANGUAGE and STYLE, an attitude often considered by others as excessive. Purists may have specific plans for reforming languages in such areas as spelling, vocabulary, and grammar. One of the earliest English treatises on logic, Ralph Lever's The Arte of Reason, Rightly Termed Witcraft (1573), rejected Latinate terms in favour of a native technical vocabulary: in addition to witcraft, he coined among other terms foreset subject, backset predicate, and gainset opposite. In the 19c, the philologist William Barnes wrote an English grammar, the Outline of English Speech-Craft (1878), using invented vocabulary such as thought-wording proposition, speech-thing subject, and timetaking predicate. Some words did catch on: the rhetorician John Earle (1890) credited the 19c movement with popularizing openmindedness, seamy, shaky, and unknowable.

In present-day terms, purists are reformers who seek to root out presumed errors in grammar and usage and offer what they feel to be more correct alternatives. They usually object to the state of the language and/or the direction in which it appears to be going, suspect and disapprove of new words or of old words with new meanings, insist on the literal meaning of words, and insist on logic in usage. In addition, they tend to see themselves individually as acting on behalf of an unclear ultimate authority. There are few self-confessed purists among the critics of the English language today; purism is generally a negative term, and by and large purists are regarded as hypercorrective extremists. It is not unusual, however, to find grammar and usage critics denying that they are purists while engaging in all the traditional forms of purism. See PLAIN, PURE.

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Purism. French artistic movement of c.1918–25 linked to the Machine Aesthetic and founded by Ozenfant and Le Corbusier. It claimed Cubism was becoming concerned with mere decoration, that art needed to reflect the ‘spirit of the age’, exclude emotionalism and expression, and learn lessons inherent in the precision of machinery. Advocated in Après le Cubisme (1918), L'Esprit Nouveau (1920–5), and La Peinture Moderne (1925), it influenced the architectural theories of Constructivism and the teachings of the Bauhaus.


Chilvers Osborne & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Jane Turner (1996)

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