Exploring the meaning of ‘revanchist’ amid Trump-Putin coverage

As President Trump met with NATO and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the news media ramped up its disapprobation.

While Trump was “set on ushering in a gauzy new era of cooperation with Mr. Putin,” The New York Times reported, his administration was “set on countering a revanchist power that the White House has labeled one of the greatest threats to American security and prosperity.”

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The Christian Science Monitor said NATO was needed: “The 9/11 attacks – and more recently Western fears of a revanchist Russia – quieted much of the questioning of NATO’s continued existence.”

But the news media wasn’t the only one to pile on. The president of Ukraine, urging NATO to keep its sanctions on Russia, cited its neighbor’s aggressiveness and said, “This behaviour as well as Russian revanchist policy cannot be tolerated.”

In these contexts, “revanchist” obviously is not a compliment. But just what does it mean? If you speak Spanish or French, it might be obvious. As is the wont of many dictionaries, Merriam-Webster doesn’t define “revanchist” in its entry for “revanchist.” Instead, it refers to the root, “revanche,” which it defines as “revenge; especially: a usually political policy designed to recover lost territory or status.”

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Both “revanche” and “revenge” come from the Middle French verb “revenchier,” “to revenge.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first use of “revanche” in 1615, meaning “The action or an act of returning a favour or (now chiefly) avenging an injury; requital, recompense; revenge, retaliation.” In Spanish, “revancha” also means “revenge,” and news reports in Spanish seem to use the word more frequently than English ones do.

Why do we even need a word like that? After all, we have “vengeance,” “vengeful,” etc. But politics wants its own jargon. In the “Did You Know?” section of the “revanche” entry, M-W says “revanche” “developed its specific political application in the years following the Franco-German War (1870-71), which resulted in France losing the territory known as Alsace-Lorraine to Germany.”

The OED concurs, tracing to 1874 the political meaning of “revanche” as “The return of a nation’s lost territory; a policy, movement, or act of aggression aimed at achieving this.” Its earliest citation also cites the Franco-German War: “A little talk..about the prospects of France, the duties of Frenchmen, and the question of the ‘revanche’.”

“Revanche” has literary uses as well. Discussing the use of the Lynard Skynyrd song Sweet Home Alabama at a Virginia campaign rally, an editorial said it was, in some ways, an example of ‘chansons de revanche,’ or, in English, a revenge song.” (If you want to know why, read the editorial.)

Even so, the noun “revanche” rarely appears in news reports. Instead, in the 20th century, it acquired political endings: “revanchism” (the “ism” suffix signaling a doctrine or belief), and “revanchist” (the “ist” suffix signaling the person adhering to that doctrine or belief). “Revanchism” first showed up in 1951, the OED says, though it says “revanchist” as both a noun and an adjective first appeared in 1881.

“Revanche” apparently appears more frequently in books, it appears from this Google N-gram, showing the appearance of all three words in books from 1900 to about 2008.

Note the spike in “revanche” around 1917 (related to World War I?), and how “revanchist” and “revanchism” didn’t really appear until the post-World War II era. Digging deeper into those mid-60s spikes show a lot of references to Germany, specifically West Germany, which was considered quite “revanchist” toward the Soviet Union.

One bicycle company has taken “revanche” for its name, saying “Revanche means rematch, alternative. Not giving in to fear when descending, not giving in to pain when climbing, not giving up when you fall. Revanche is the essence of cycling. Because not giving up is the essence of cycling. That’s your Revanche.”

Bicycling well, apparently, is the best revenge.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.