c. 1600, "an adherent of an emperor or the imperial cause," such as the emperor of Germany (in the Thirty Years War), France, China, etc., probably modeled on French impérialiste (early 16c.); from imperial + -ist. The shift in meaning to "advocate of imperialism" (1893) came via the British Empire, which involved a worldwide colonial system. See imperialism. As a term of abuse in communist circles, attested by 1918. As an adjective by 1816.
updated on October 22, 2015