A friend recently described his father, who was an esteemed newspaper editor of the 1940s and 1950s, as a ‘Nehru-ite’. Since I was more familiar with the term ‘Nehruvian’, I asked why the ‘-ite’ instead of the ‘-ian’. He answered that this was conventional at that time, when—in nationalist circles—a debate raged between ‘Patel-ites’ and ‘Nehru-ites’.
My friend’s clarification got me thinking on the differences, real or imagined, between these two suffixes. My first thought was that the ‘-ite’ denoted a stronger connection to the person or name with whom it was associated, whereas to use ‘-ian’ would denote a looser or more general bond. In thinking as I did, I remembered also a Marxist I knew in the Kolkata of the 1980s, who would often preface a political discussion by saying, ‘Remember, I am not a Gandhite’. (The negativity in that last word was definitive, far more so than if he had disavowed being a ‘Gandhian’).

I turned to the Chambers Dictionary for help. This defined ‘-ite’ as a suffix used to ‘form names of people, indicating their origin, place of origin, affiliations, loyalties’ (as for example Jacobite). The suffixes ‘-an’ or ‘–ian’, according to Chambers, denoted ‘things belong to or typical of a specific person’ (e.g. Johnsonian). The definitions seemed to confirm my hunch—namely, that to be a ‘Nehru-ite’ would be to be affiliated with and deeply loyal to the person or ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru, whereas to be a ‘Nehruvian’ would be to exhibit manners and attitudes characteristic of the period in which Nehru led India. Likewise, a ‘Gandhite’ would be strongly and even obsessively loyal to the memory of the Mahatma, whereas a ‘Gandhian’ would interpret the Mahatma’s legacy more broadly, to work in the tradition laid down by Gandhi without taking every word that he uttered as relevant in every detail to all times and all places.

In thinking as I did, I was also influenced by the title of that famous work of collective biography, Lytton Stratchey’s Eminent Victorians. The four people profiled in that book—the nurse, Florence Nightingale; the military man, General Gordon; the schoolmaster, Thomas Arnold of Rugby; and the preacher, Cardinal Manning—were not united by a shared adherence to a particular political or religious ideology. But they all lived, worked in, and to a substantial extent were shaped by, the social climate of the long reign of Queen Victoria. That is to say, they were all motivated by the desire to improve themselves and to improve others, a desire very characteristic of 19th century England.

In the latter part of the 20th century, a strong-willed lady came to exercise as powerful an influence on her country as had Victoria a century before. There has not yet been, but perhaps there will soon be, a book by a modern British biographer entitled Eminent Thatcherites. With that title, it would surely showcase only those individuals who were very closely associated with, and deeply loyal to, the person or/and ideology of that Conservative Prime Minister.

Does an ‘-ite’, then, denote a closer, perhaps even more slavish, association with a person than a mere ‘-ian’? When I ran this idea by my father (whose interest in language is much deeper than mine) he was skeptical. Sometimes it was merely a question of what sounded better, he said. It was conventional to speak of Tamilians and Keralites—by this we certainly did not mean that the Malayalis were more chauvinistic about their culture than the Tamils. It was just that ‘Keralians’ sounded worse that ‘Keralites’. Likewise, while ‘Thatcherite’ tripped lightly off the tonque, ‘Thatcherian’ took some saying.

I was persuaded, but not wholly. It may be that in some cases the ‘-ite’ sounded sweeter than the ‘-ian’, However, when (as in ‘Gandh-ite’ and ‘Gandhian’) it was just as easy to use either, the ‘-ite’ denoted a stronger attachment to the person or belief than the ‘-ian’.

Speaking with my father, I remembered that a close cousin of ‘-ite’ and ‘-ian’ is the suffix ‘-ist’. This is defined by Chambers as denoting ‘a person who is an advocate or believer in a doctrine…’ (e.g. Calvinist). To advocate is more emphatic than to be loyal—thus, for example, a ‘Gandhist’ would be even more devoted to the Mahatma than a ‘Gandhite’. Except that we do not ever use ‘Gandhist’, since it sounds ugly.

On the other hand, we speak of ‘Marxist’, and also, of ‘Marxian’. (I have never heard ‘Marxite’ being used, though—perhaps, like ‘Gandhist’, it justn’t sound right). In my understanding, a Marxist would take Karl Marx’s words more literally than a ‘Marxian’. Thus when he lost faith with the Communist Party, the revolutionary M. N. Roy founded a journal called the ‘The Marxian Way’, which sought to rework Marx’s ideas rather than adopt them wholesale. In this he may have taken heart from Marx himself, who once remarked—apropos the fanaticism of some of his disciples— that ‘I am not a Marxist’.

And so I (provisionally) conclude that, in order of loyalty or devotion to a person or doctrine, ‘-ist’ comes before ‘-ite’, and ‘-ite’ itself before ‘-ian’.