Language is a funny thing and no language is as funny, weird or baffling as English. Perhaps more than any other language, English has been influenced by almost every culture and language it has come into contact with. The purpose of this series is to highlight some of the more interesting instances where an event, cultural practice or person has entered the vocabulary of the modern English speaker.

The focus of this article is one of the most controversial terms in modern history: terrorism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no universally accepted definition of the word.

The US officially defines it as “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

The Australian Government defines terrorism as “an action or threat of action where the action causes certain defined forms of harm or interference and the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.”

These are just two of as many as 109 definitions that are used around the world.

So where did perhaps the most charged term in recent history come from? One might think it was reasonably obvious. The origins lie in the definition(s), such as the ones above, right? In reality, for a term that is so vague in its definition, its origin is surprisingly specific.

Acts that might be considered terrorism are nothing new. Indeed, among the earliest known examples of what might be considered a ‘terrorist group’ dates to the 1st Century CE at the height of the unrest in Roman Palestine. The Sicarii were a radical splinter group of the Jewish independence movement known as the Zealots. Their name translates from Latin as ‘dagger-men’, in reference to the small dagger known as the ‘sica’ that was their weapon of choice. The Sicarii were notorious for publicly attacking both Romans and Jews they considered Roman ‘collaborators’. Temple priests and members of the primarily upper-class Sadducees sect were among their many victims.

However, while the history of terrorist acts is a long one, the terms terrorism and terrorist themselves actually have a much more recent origin in the French Revolution of the late 18th Century, specifically a period known to most historians as the Reign of Terror, or simply the Terror.

Reign of Terror

Three years after the revolution began in 1789 and just a year after it was established, the First French Republic was in dire straits. Deeply riven by intense factionalism, civil strife and under threat of foreign invasion, it seemed that the new Republic might soon collapse.

An idealised sans-culottes by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)

The National Convention (the governing body) was harshly divided along partisan lines, with the Girondins forming the more conservative wing and the Montagnards occupying more radical positions. These factions came under intense pressure from groups outside the National Convention, such as the Sans-culottes (radical and militant revolutionaries agitating on behalf of the lower classes who often resorted to violence) and the Hébertists, revolutionaries associated with the radical populist journalist Jacques Hébert. Perhaps the most powerful group was the Jacobin Club, which included many of the most influential deputes in the National Convention. The political situation was not helped by the fact that there were chronic food shortages, the government was almost bankrupt and the economy was on the brink of collapse.

In addition to this internal discord, the Republic was also fighting the War of the First Coalition against the Holy Roman Empire, Dutch Republic, Great Britain, Spain, Prussia and several other smaller states. Finally, the Republic also had to deal with the counter-revolutionary Royalist uprising in the Vendee region. In both conflicts, the new France was fairing badly.

Fear of counter-revolutionary activity was rife throughout the country.

Maximilien Robespierre

It was against this backdrop of national emergency that the National Convention, led by the infamous Maximilien Robespierre (a Jacobin), declared on September 5 1793 that “Terror Is the Order of the Day”.

The intent was clear: “Let us crush the enemies of the revolution, let the laws be executed, let the plot of the People be strengthened and let Liberty be saved.”  

So began the Reign of Terror. On September 17, the National Convention passed the decree known as the Law of Suspects, which authorized the arrest of all ‘enemies of the revolution’, both avowed and merely suspected. All of the accused were to be tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal.

It is exceedingly rare in modern history for those who have been labelled terrorists to actually use the term to describe themselves, instead preferring labels such as freedom fighter, separatist, guerillas, revolutionaries, jihadi and other similar terms. The original Terrorists, on the hand, openly, proudly embraced the use of terror as a political tool.

Robespierre himself asserted that “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe and inflexible.”

Within weeks of the Law of Suspects, the prisons were inundated with accused enemies of the Republic. A rising tide of ‘revolutionary paranoia’ overtook the country. It is estimated that between September 1793 and July 1794, some 300,000 people were arrested. The vast majority of these were eventually released. Many, however, were not so lucky. Thousands were sentenced to death by guillotine and as many as 10,000 suspects died while languishing in overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons as they awaited trial.

Over the following months, the Law of Suspects was expanded in scope and hardened in severity, with the Terror reaching its frenzied height with the passage of the Law of 22 Prairial (22 Prairial being the equivalent of June 10 in the French Revolutionary Calendar). This decree limited trials by the Revolutionary Tribunal to a maximum of three days, prevented the calling of witnesses and required the Tribunal to come to one of only two possible verdicts – complete acquittal or death.

In the month of Messidor (June 19 –July 19), 796 of a total of 1004 people put on trial were executed. An average of 26 people were sent to the guillotine each day. In the first nine days of Thermidor, no less than 342 were executed. Only 84 were acquitted. Little wonder then that this period is known as “The Great Terror”.

It was in Thermidor that Robespierre’s increasingly paranoid and tyrannical behavior became too much. In what is known as the Thermidorian Reaction, on July 27 1794 the National Convention officially denounced Robespierre and ordered his arrest. He was, along with twenty-one of his close associates, executed via guillotine the very next day. This was followed over the coming months by a purge of Robespierre’s supporters and those associated with his regime at all levels of government.

The Fall of Robespierre in the Convention on 27 July 1794 by Max Adamo 1870

Thus, the Reign of Terror had finally come to an end. It is estimated that as many 17,000 people were officially executed over its course.

In the aftermath of the Terror, any who advocated the use of terror as a political tool was labelled ‘terrorist’, most notably by Edmund Burke, who in 1795 denounced the Jacobins for letting “thousands of those hell-hounds called Terrorists … loose on the people” of France.

However, terrorism, as utilized by Robespierre, was a tool of the state. It was the government itself using terrorism against its own populace. Over the course of the 19th century, the term expanded to include violence perpetrated by non-state actors as well, most prominently the Anarchist movements. Since the early 20th Century, ‘terrorist‘ has come to almost exclusively refer to non-state actors drawing on an expansive array of political, cultural and religious ideologies.


  • “”Terror Is the Order of the Day”,” Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, accessed March 24, 2019,
  • Merriman, John. “Thermidor” (2nd ed.). A history of modern Europe: from the Renaissance to the present. W.W. Norton & Company Ltd, 2004
  • Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
  • Schama, Simon. Citizens, Penguin, 1989
  • Maximilien Robespierre, “Justification of the Use of Terror”, 28 July 1794, Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University, accessed March 25, 2019,

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