The word "Zionism" refers to Jewish nationalism, or supporting it, in the historic land of Israel.The word is, of course, based on a biblical name for Jerusalem:
Before 1948, "Zionist" meant support for the establishing of a Jewish nation state in Palestine. Since the State of Israel's establishment that year, it is taken to mean the preservation of the state as a Jewish nation-state.
But before that, we must peer thousands of years into the past. The story of the word "Zionism" really starts, in the pre-Israelite period, before King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites, according to the bible.I'm not sure how much we can rely on the biblical account of Jerusalem in the pre-Israelite period. And there's that odd episode about the priest-king Melchizedek to take into account too. See Genesis 14 and Psalm 110. But that's the information we have.
Simply, "Zion" was the name of Jerusalem’s acropolis in the pre-Israelite period, around 3,000 years ago.
That acropolis was in the part of the city that would subsequently be called “The City of David,” as 2 Samuel says: "David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David" (5:7).
Later, during the Babylonian Exile, starting in 586 B.C.E., "Zion" morphed into a poetic name for the city of Jerusalem as a whole. With time, it became a poetic name for the Land of Israel as a whole, appearing in songs and prayers of yearning for the return to the land throughout Jewish history.
Much of the article discusses the more recent developments that led to the word "Zionism. Then it returns to the etymological question:
In 1897, when Theodor Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization, he adopted the name and the rest is history.Various suggested etymologies follow. Again, read the article fast before it goes behind the subscription wall. Or you can read a limited number of premium Haaretz articles every month with a free registration.
But what does the word "Zion" mean?
We don't know. Scholars do not agree, but at least there is a multitude of theories to choose from.
Once it was commonly claimed that the name is pre-Semitic, and some strange foreign etymologies were proposed, such as the Hurrian word sheya (“water”) or the Elamite word tziya (“temple”).
Now most scholars agree the word is probably Semitic in origin: Archaeology indicates that Semitic peoples controlled the entire region for more than a millennium before the time of David.
For additional discussion of the question see this recent post.