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Chosen Words

In Britain, we have just emerged from the longest and most tedious election campaign in Britain this century, and yet the one that has had the most spectacular result. These events have provoked me into looking into the history of some relevant words.

In recent British parlance among parliamentarians and the public, the word politician has been pretty much a term of abuse, often a near synonym for “underhanded; dishonest”. This view is not new: from e e cummings’ “A politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man” back to Shakespeare’s “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not”, the breed has had a bad press. Indeed, one of the word’s first senses when it came into English — just at the right moment for Shakespeare to grab and use it — was “a shrewd schemer; a crafty plotter or intriguer”; the OED marks this as obsolete. But the word comes from the Greek polis, meaning the state and its citizens; in those times the meaning of politikos was nearer our modern sense of statesman, someone who puts the good of his country above all other considerations, rather than, as Harry Truman put it, “a politician who has been dead 10 or 15 years”. Whether the new Labour government will succeed in modifying or even removing this penumbra of meaning is too early to say.

The poll in which one casts one’s vote derives from an old Germanic word meaning “head” (a meaning which survives in some dialects). So a poll was just the process of numbering off heads in the days when people literally stood up to be counted at election time. Actually, in many English elections right down to the Reform Act of 1832 election was by acclamation, meaning that the candidate whose supporters shouted loudest got in; this practice was so unreliable in the crowded confusion of polling day that from the late sixteenth century onwards candidates began to demand a head count of those voting, and this is the true origin of the poll. The old sense of “head” survives in phrases such as poll tax, one paid by each person individually. This is a term with special historical resonances both in Britain and the USA (a proposed poll tax was the prime cause of the peasants’ revolt of 1381) which became so again in Britain in the late eighties. A local tax on individuals which was intended to replace an ancient and unfair property tax and officially called the Community Charge was renamed the poll tax by canny objectors who eventually forced its withdrawal.

The word election just comes from the Latin meaning “to choose; to pick out (from among a number of possibilities)”. At one time this could be used in phrases like “I elect Smith”, meaning that the speaker is casting his vote for, or choosing, Smith from among the candidates. A group term for those eligible to vote, the electorate, is extremely recent, being first recorded only in 1879; before then the usage was to refer to the electors. The right to vote is now called the franchise, but that word’s first sense in English in the thirteenth century meant “freedom, as opposed to servitude or subjection”; it gradually evolved through the senses of a legal immunity to prosecution, the granting of a right or privilege (hence another reduced modern meaning, of a right granted by an organisation to someone to sell its products within a given area), through the phrase elective franchise, a right granted by the sovereign to vote, to its main modern sense.

The process of voting is, etymologically speaking, one of taking a vow, since it is based on the Latin votum, “vow, wish”, which was its first meaning in English in the sixteenth century (the modern meaning spread south from Scotland about 1600). A ballot comes to us from the Italian word balotta for a little ball, since such balls were used for secret voting by placing them in the appropriate urn or box. The older, literal sense survives in English in black ball, since it was once the custom to place a black ball in the voting container to indicate an adverse vote; this became an effective veto in some places, especially gentlemen’s clubs in London. One successful candidate in the 1997 election, the former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, standing as an anti-corruption independent, wore his trademark lucky white suits throughout the campaign; this fitted the origins of the word candidate splendidly, as it derives from the Latin candidatus, meaning “clothed in white”, because it was the custom in Rome for those putting themselves up for election to the Senate to wear a white toga.

The names for the assemblies to which one elects such candidates are various. Our parliament comes from the old French parlement, which at first meant only a “talk, consultation, conference” (it derives from the same French word parler, “to speak” as parlance, parley and parlour, the last of which, etymologically, is a “room set aside for conversation”). Later parlement evolved to the sense “formal consultative body” and so to “legislative body”. A council is a body which has been called together for some purpose (from the Latin concilium, “call together”), though there has been much confusion down the years with consilium, “an advisory body”, which gives us counsel. A legislature is a body which makes laws; it derives from legislator, itself created from two Latin words meaning “a proposer of a law”.

The first act of Prime Minister Blair was to form his new Cabinet, now the standard term for the inner council of state in the British system; it derives from the French word of the same spelling meaning “small room”, which, surprisingly, has no straightforward link in that language with the word cabin, but comes either from an old French word for a gambling house, or possibly from the Italian gabbinetto, which derives from the same Latin root from which we also get cage. In English, cabinet took on the special meaning of “private room” in the early seventeenth century, especially a place where the monarch could meet his advisers, a group known as the Cabinet Council from the accession of Charles I in 1625; the word was later transferred to the body of advisers itself. (It also turns up in the set phrase cabinet of curiosities, where the reference is to a small room, not a storage container.) It was at first a term of abuse, because the body was seen to be usurping the function of the much larger, older (but still surviving) body, the Privy Council, whose name is closely related in sense because privy here just means “private”. It is only by a small accident of language that the Cabinet is not called the Closet, which was a very similar word in use at about the same time.

Committee comes from commit plus the suffix -ee and originally meant “a person to whom some function or trust is committed”. So it was considered quite correct at one time to refer to the 24 Committees of the East India Company; these were not a bureaucratic nightmare but the 24 individuals whom we would now call its directors. It was only in the seventeenth century that committee shifted sense to refer to the body rather than the individuals comprising it, though the older meaning survived in a few archaic usages such as at Guy’s Hospital in London, which into this century had a Court of Committees — 21 individuals who managed its financial affairs. Conclave, not a common legislative term but one signifying an assembly brought together for some special purpose, derives from the Latin word meaning “a place which can be locked up” (the second syllable is from clavis, “key”) — Popes are elected in literally this way with the Cardinals locked away until they make their decision.

One ancient deliberative body has come down in the world wordwise, since hustings are now the whole proceedings of a parliamentary election campaign with its attendant brio, emotion and argument; but in medieval times a husting was a private council held by some leader in distinction to the thing or general assembly of the people; its name means “house-assembly”. Later this word was given to a court of law in the Guildhall in London (the Court of Husting); by the seventeenth century it was being applied to the platform at the upper end of the building on which the Lord Mayor and Aldermen sat during its sessions; later still it came to be the name for the platform on which candidates stood to address the electors, and from which the poll (the counting of heads, remember) took place before the secret ballot was introduced in the 1870s. More recently still, its scope has widened even further to embrace the whole electioneering process of argument, promotion and canvassing.

Incidentally, alderman is an ancient title of rank, dating back beyond the Norman Conquest, indicating someone ruling a province or district. Until local government reorganisation in 1974 aldermen were a senior rank of elected members of local authorities in Britain but now only the City of London retains them. And the process of canvassing for votes derives from canvas in the sense of tossing someone in a sheet as a punishment or practical joke. This led very early on (in medieval times) to the figurative meanings “to criticise harshly” and “to discuss thoroughly” and presumably so to the idea of attempting to persuade electors by argument of one’s qualifications for election (the thought of tossing recalcitrant electors in a sheet to persuade them to your point of view would probably appeal to some politicians).

One issue which is likely to feature during the regional devolution debates in the new session of Parliament is the West Lothian Question, a term which was invented by the Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell in the 1970s when he was sitting for that constituency (Lothian is the area around Edinburgh). If devolution came about and the Scots obtained their own parliament, he asked, why should Scottish MPs at Westminster be allowed to discuss and vote on English issues, when English MPs could not do the same for Scottish matters? The name for the issue, a crucial one for a proposed political system which is neither centralised government nor a federal association, was probably in part a punning reference to the famous Midlothian speeches of Gladstone in 1879-80 which did so much to put the Liberals back into power at the 1880 general election, and which was the first example of the manifesto in British politics. This word comes to us from Italian, and is closely related to the older word manifest, etymologically something “grasped by the hand”, that is, “palpable, obvious”. Originally manifesto just meant “evidence, proof” (closely related to the modern word manifest for a list of cargo or passengers) and only gradually evolved to its current sense of “a public statement of political objectives or intentions, especially immediately before an election”.

As a result of the opposition by members of both main parties (but particularly the Conservative right) to the idea of Britain conforming to European Union agreements and laws, the word federal has taken on a derogatory meaning in Britain in the nineties, one which is different to that commonly understood elsewhere. It was possible, for example, for the former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind to speak in February 1997 of a “monolithic, centralised, federal” Europe, to the total bemusement of his German audience. The word derives from an older meaning based on the Latin federus, “treaty; covenant”, in phrases such as “federal union”, from which the modern term has evolved. This is a rare example in Britain of a word whose sense and associations has been radically amended within little more than a decade. The policies of the new Government suggest we may get it back, though slightly tarnished, in its more usual meaning.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 22 Mar 1997; Last updated 17 May 1997