For those who delight in learning new words, “jingoism” is one of the most interesting terms to find its way into the English language. The word has been used in political and foreign-policy references for more than 100 years, beginning with the relationship between Great Britain and Russia.
According to history, the British Prime Minister of the time, Benjamin Disraeli, is associated with efforts to keep his country out of the fight. The term “jingo” began to be used as many in the U.K. urged political leaders to get into the fight, if necessary. A common song stated that even if the Brits didn’t want to fight, by jingo, they had the means to do it. The word seems to have its roots in the Basque term for “god.”
In modern political discussions, jingoism is thought of as a firm belief in one’s country and in the right of the country’s military to be involved in the affairs of other countries. But there is a twist to jingoism, in that this intervention is looked upon as chauvinistic and aggressive with a bit of swagger thrown in for good measure.
Some have described jingoism as patriotism that is inflated and expanded until it is far beyond love of country and a desire to protect the interests of one’s country. Jingoistic action is often based on the belief that might makes right, not only that the strongest survive but that the strongest must be allowed to make decisions for other populations. There are some parallels between the British/Russian/Ottoman situation of the late 19th century and the actions of the United States and the U.K. in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The foreign policy actions of the United States in Viet Nam, in Iraq and even in Afghanistan, have some characteristics of jingoism. Not only do the elected leaders in the U.S. feel that it is their right and duty to spread democracy through military action, but many citizens feel the same way. The other similarity is this: the term “jingoism” was applied to British foreign policy in the 1870s by critics of the country’s foreign policy. It is applied to U.S. foreign policy today by opponents of the nation’s aggressive actions. The men and women pursuing such policies don’t apply the term to themselves.
Some have transformed jingoism into another term, often referred to in alternative histories and in encyclopedia references as “spread eagleism.” This means, of course, the United States is intervening on foreign soil because political leaders and military leaders feel it is the nation’s duty and right to do so. In essence, the actions of the United States today could be cheered by the same beer-hall song that was used in 19th century Britain. People then slammed their mugs on the table and sang out that “we” have the guns and money to do what we want to do.
When the term is used, it is generally because the feeling among the population is one of destiny. Those who disagree then begin to apply the term “jingoism.”