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Each to their own priorities. While the thoughts of others on the unprecedented events in the American presidential election turn to matters of electoral colleges, democratic representation, and the like, mine sent me to the dictionary to look up vote.

If you look at its history, a vote is an expression of a wish or desire, since it derives from Latin votum, which comes from the verb vovere with that sense. It could also mean to promise something faithfully, and so is the origin also of our vow. The first recorded use of vote in English — in the sixteenth century — definitely had the latter sense: a solemn promise or undertaking. Only a little later it could also mean a prayer or intercession, which must be echo the feelings of a lot of people in the US this weekend, not least Messrs Gore and Bush.

In this sense, it’s closely allied to another English word from the same Latin source: votive. A votive offering was one made to the gods in fulfilment of a vow. The word survives in the votive Mass of the Catholic Church, one celebrated for a special purpose or occasion by request of the celebrant.

A votary is a person dedicated to a cause, such as a monk or nun who has made vows of dedication to religious service. By the time of Shakespeare, this had become rather weakened in sense to describe merely a devoted follower or adherent, so that in Two Gentlemen of Verona the Duke of Milan is able to tell Proteus “You are already Love’s firm votary”. Its female equivalent was votaress, sometimes voteress, which turns up in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (In this infinitely more gender-sensitive age, I’d like to be a spectator if someone ever tried to introduce voteress for a female voter.)

It was 150 years earlier, about 1460, that vote had shifted its sense to mean an expression of one’s opinion or choice on a matter under discussion; the verb to vote in its modern sense was introduced as late as 1552.

It was rather later that the word took on pejorative overtones as a result of underhand electoral practices. Tennyson wrote that “When the rotten hustings shake / In another month to his brazen lies, A wretched vote may be gain’d”. By the time we get to W S Gilbert’s “I always voted at my party’s call, and I never thought of thinking for myself at all” and Ambrose Bierce’s definition of it as “The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country”, the penumbra of cynicism around everything political had reached its full modern extent.

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Page created 18 Nov 2000