Daily Archives: January 27, 2016


On Tuesday night, I was at a reception hosted by the Literary Review of Canada (of which I have been the designer for more than 15 years), and I had the chance to chat with Andrew Coyne, a fairly well known political commentator. I particularly liked one thing he said: Radical and extremist are not the same thing. Bernie Sanders is a radical but he’s not an extremist. Donald Trump is an extremist but he’s not particularly radical.

We have ideas about what a radical is, who is radical, what is radical, and so forth. When I was young, radicals were “wild-eyed,” and you would have a mental image of some young communist or anarchist with hair like a basket of deep-fried exclamation marks, eyes like devilled quail eggs with olives, and the personal hygiene habits of an indolent hippopotamus, and he (or occasionally she) would be waving and shouting and maybe tossing a bomb or something. These days you’re more likely to see it with “Islamic” or “cleric,” or occasionally “feminist.” It tends to be used as a way of othering people, casting them into an irrational role. It implies that the person is about as peppery as a radish and hell-bent on eradicating civil society. Many people are strongly resistant to proposals that they make fundamental changes to their ways of living. And radicals are always exponents of fundamental change. So, in defence of their comfort, people cast radicals as ridiculous extremists.

Hmm. Fundamental change versus radical change – do you notice the difference in tone? If your CEO says “We’re going to have to make some fundamental changes,” that means the basic ways of doing things will have to change, but it will be done in an authoritative, considered way. If your CEO says “We’re going to have to make some radical changes,” it will probably give more of an idea of suddenly jerking the steering wheel and going off road. It also probably means you have a new, likely younger, CEO. Fundamental change doesn’t always take you out of your comfort zone. Radical change seems to require going out of your comfort zone. And yet… leaving aside the difference in tone and implication, how would you define the difference in denotation?

Meanwhile, there are other uses of radical. Free radical, for instance (at the beginning of Never Say Never Again, M tells 007 he needs to go for a health cure; Miss Moneypenny asks him what his next assignment is, and he says “I am to eliminate all free radicals”). Whatever those are, they must be very bad, like little wild-haired bomb-tossing anarchists in your blood, right? And then there’s radical mastectomy, which is the biggest, baddest kind of boob removal, for women whose breast cancer is no small thing. On the other hand, there’s also the shortened form rad, as in Totally rad, dude, which shifts the sense from the bad kind of ‘wild’ to the good kind. And there are other uses, such as in Chinese orthography, where the basic characters (of which there are some 400) that are combined to make other characters are called radicals.

And there’s this: √. That’s not a check-mark; it’s the thing you use to indicate a square root (or, with a superscript number in the notch, some other kind of root). It’s called the radical sign. When you first encounter that term, you may wonder if it’s because of its rakish tilt. But no. It’s time to get to the root of what radical really is.

Radical is an Anglicization of Latin radicalis, which is derived from the root radix. Radix is not just a root; it means ‘root’. It’s the source of our word radish. When we speak of eradicating something, the original image is pulling it up by the roots – removing the whole plant, in other words.

So everything that is radical has to do with roots (well, except when someone is using the term more loosely to mean “wild” because they don’t know its origin). Political radicals want change from – or to – the roots. Fundamental change. As Bernie Sanders shows, it does not have to be extremist; heads do not have to roll. And (though Sanders is no example for this) their hair can be quite tidy, right down to the roots.

Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that are highly reactive and ready to form bigger molecules – and may cause damage in doing so. A radical mastectomy removes a breast by the roots, muscles and all. Chinese radical characters are the roots, the basic forms. And the radical sign signifies a root – square root, or, with the necessary exponent, some other kind of root.

You know what I mean by exponent, right? If I put x2, the superscript 2 is the exponent. It says to what power the number is raised. It just so happens that you can express the root of a number without using a radical sign. You just use a fractional exponent. The square root of x, which you can write as √x, can also be written as x½. So a radical is a fractional exponent.

Just incidentally, x0 is always equal to 1, regardless of x – if you’re looking out for number one, you’re not going to be a radical or an exponent of anything, really. Also, if the exponent is a negative number, it means the reciprocal of the positive – that is to say, x–3 is the same as 1/x3. And x–½ is the same as 1/√x. It’s easy to get confused between fractional exponents and negative ones, but it’s worth remembering: negative exponents always want to divide, but radicals are not always negative exponents. Some radicals are exponents of quite positive things – change for the better.