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Weight of public opinion

Q From Scott W Langill: I work for a Committee in the US Senate. To mark National Archives Month our Archivist has been e-mailing various documents and in a recent one commented: “In cases of large petitions, signatures were not counted, but weighed. This is where the terms weight of public opinion and voters weighing in come from.” My initial search for references to this online yielded nothing. Is this apocryphal? If not, was it in use prior to the 19th century?

A That is a most interesting statement. Like you, I’ve searched my available sources but can’t find anybody who puts this forward as the origin of these expressions, not even humorously. I’d be most interested to learn the Archivist’s evidence for it.

The linguistic evidence says it’s untrue. People have for a long time used weight as a way to figuratively describe the mental burden of assessing information and making decisions. The idea is at least two millennia old — when we ponder some matter, for example, we’re etymologically weighing it, since that verb comes from the Latin verb ponderare, which meant not only literally to weigh something but also to reflect on an issue. In modern English we may argue that the views of people of all ages should be given equal weight, we may consider the weight of the evidence (in law linked to the image of the scales of justice), or we may calculate a weighted average (in which each element is multiplied by a factor that reflects its importance). Such metaphors are everywhere.

The specific phrase weight of public opinion is a member of this set. Thomas Jefferson employed it in his second inaugural address in March 1805: “our citizens at large, who, by the weight of public opinion, influence and strengthen the public measures.” It is to be found before the nineteenth century, though only just:

From the nature of the British Government, the continual superintendence of Parliament, the weight of public opinion, and the influence which all these circumstances have on the character and conduct of persons in official situations, there is a greater probability than in other countries that the Administration will ordinarily be at least right in its intentions, and will adapt its measures from a belief that they are such as will tend to the benefit of the nation.

A Review of the Principal Proceedings of the Parliament of 1784, quoted in the Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1792.

The other expression, to weigh in, meaning to bring a forceful view to bear on some discussion, is rather more recent, being recorded, the Oxford English Dictionary says, from the early twentieth century. The most likely explanation for it lies in somebody figuratively throwing his weight behind a point of view.

None of this establishes without doubt that nobody ever weighed a petition to judge its worth, since petitions had been around for centuries before the earlier of the two phrases appeared. But the long existence of the figurative uses of weight overwhelmingly supports that origin for the phrases.

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