Monday, May 2, 2011

Figting Electoral Words

(The following article appeared in today's National Post)

Fighting words
For politicians, schemingand plotting are par for the course

Howard Richler
As the 2011 federal electiondraws to a close tonight, Canadians can breathe a sigh of relief.  Politicians will no longer brandish pamphletsat subway stops. “Attack ads” will no longer intrude on hockey games. And allthe rhetoric and mudslinging will abate – at least, until Parliament is back insession.
If you are wondering whypoliticians, particularly while campaigning, at times display belligerencebordering on bellicosity, you need not look any further than the etymology ofthe word “campaign”. The term derives from the Latin campus - “field” - andthe field in question is one not used for baseball but for battle. The firstdefinition of campaign in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1656 reads:“The continuance and operations of an army “in the field, for a season or otherdefinite portion of time, or while engaged in one continuous series of militaryoperations constituting the whole or distinct part of the war.” The term onlycame to refer to general endeavours such as a political or an advertisingcampaign towards the end of the 18th century.
Similarly, if you harbourdisdain for politicians, you may not be surprised to learn that despite itsderivation from the Greek politicos, or “statesman”, the first meaningof the word in the 16th century was actually “schemer” or “plotter.”Shakespeare declares his ungenerous feeling towards politicians when his KingLear utters: “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to seethings that are not,” and when Hamlet states “This might be the pate of a that would circumvent God, might it not​​?”​​​​

If that explains politicians,what of polls?  The word derives from anentirely different root: the Middle Dutch word pol , or “head.” A pollwas a means of counting heads at a time when people would literally stand to becounted during elections. Until the English Parliament passed the Reform Act in1832, elections were decided by acclamation: that usually meant the candidatewhose camp created the highest decibel level would emerge victorious. Due tothe unreliability of this method, by the late 16th century candidateswith soft-spoken supporters demanded an actual head count of the assembledelectorate, and this is the origin of the poll.
If you believe that voting isa solemn responsibility, again you have etymology in your corner.  The word vote derives from the Latin votum,“vow.” The modern electoral sense originated in Scotland in the early 17thcentury, and quickly became common in England.
Finally, if you rue the factthat candidates are generally not candid, but too often hypocritical, takesolace in the fact that the original hypocrites were only pretending, being actors.The Greek hypocrites denoted an actor on a stage, but when it wasadopted into English in the 13th century it referred to a person whopretends to have feelings or beliefs of a higher order than his/her real ones.
While our election drama maybe all too real, it is still eminently civilized and democratic compared to thatin much of the rest of the world. As Mao Zedong put it, “Politics is warcarried out without bloodshed, while war is politics carried out withbloodshed.”   Something to ponder as we headto the polls, cast our votes, choose our politicians - and celebrate the end ofanother election campaign.
  Howard Richler´s latest book is StrangeBedfellows:The Private Lives of Words.

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