Thursday, July 30, 2015

Electile Dysfunction

Deconstructing the Political E.D.: electile dysfunctionality


Howard Richler

Anyday now, the writ will be dropped in Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will advise the Governor-General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament. Johnston will then issue a writ of election for a new Parliament and the federal election season will commence. Actually, no writ is dropped ; writs of election are issued, and the sense of drop is idiomatic as in “drop a line” or “drop in.” The term “drop the writ” is a corruption of “draw up the writ” and in 2005 the CBC issued a style memorandum to journalists advising them not to drop the drop the writ phrase but being more colourful than the “correct” term, it has endured.

An electoral term with a surprising origin is “riding.” Only in Canada is an electoral district referred to by this term but we have to look to Yorkshire, England for the word's provenance. One would suppose that the term has something to do with the verb “to ride” but such is not the case. Until 1974, Yorkshire was divided for administrative purposes into three ridings and the key word here is “three.” The word riding came into English in the 15th century from Old Norse thrithjungr, “third part” and was originally rendered in English as “trithing.”

Just as “riding” is not connected to “ride” the word candidate is not related to the candid nature of those seeking office. If candidates were etymologically correct, they would wear white clothes as the word derives from the Latin candidatus, “dressed in white.” In ancient Rome is was the custom for those standing for election in the Senate to don white togas probably in an attempt to convince the populace they were as pure as snow.

Another word that only appears during an election is “hustings,” and as we know candidates are prone to hitting them during campaigns. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “hustings” as “The political campaigning leading up to an election, e.g., canvassing votes and making speeches.” The word was originally rendered in the singular and literally means “house thing” but “thing” originally had the sense of “meeting” or “assembly,” and these council meetings would be called by a lord or king and attended by his particular “house.” Over time “husting” acquired other specific meanings such as a court of law in the Guildhall in London and a platform on which candidates stood to address the electorate. In the 20th century “hustings” has come to refer to the general hullabaloo created during an election campaign.

When you cast your ballot, you might take solace that although riding doesn't derive from ride, ballot does come from “ball” as we borrowed the word from the Italian ballotta, “little ball.” In days of yore, people often voted by dropping little balls into a receptacle. The first OED citation of the word in 1561 states: “Boxes into whiche if he wyll, he may let fall his ballot, that no man can perceiue hym.” Related to “ballot” is the idea that since a white ball often meant a “yes” vote and a black ball designated a “no” vote, the term blackball came to refer to exclusion from a club in the late 18th century.

By the way, if you happen to believe that politicians are crooks, it might be because you somehow intuited that etymologically the word “Tory” is associated with thievery. According to the OED, the original sense of Tory, “In the 17th century, {was} one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers.” Lest you find this anti-Irish, you can take small comfort from knowing that the OED points out that within a decade the word's banditry label was extended to other races, such as Scottish Highlanders. It quickly became a term to refer to any Irish Papist and by the middle of the seventeenth century the word was often used by British commentators as a synonym for “bandit.” Through a process of major political flip-flopping over the years, this term originally referring to brigands came to refer to those who vigorously supported the Crown.

Now that you're lexically prepared, don't neglect to follow the dropping of the writ and vote for the candidate in your riding by dropping the ball for the party who might be Tory, but certainly doesn't harbour bandits ( with the possible exception of a handful of Senators).

Howard Richler's book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2016.

1 comment:

  1. "Writ" is an Old English word that originally applied to anything in written form. Since 1211, the word specifically means ANY legal document.

    The Instrument of advice that the Prime Minister "drops" on the Governor General's desk is a writ. If the GG accepts the PM's advice, all the documents the GG then delivers to dissolve parliament and put the electoral process in motion are "writs". The Chief Returning Officer also issues legal instruments (as ordered by the GG). They are called "election writs". "Dropping them is not draughting them but issuing or publishing them.

    In the expression "drop a writ", as in "drop a line", the term "drop" is probably NOT a synonym for "draught" but means to send or deliver (he dropped me a line = sent me a message). It should be noted that some think "drop a line" means "write a message", but that does not seem to be justified.

    So, when the PM went to Rideau Hall, he did indeed "drop a writ" or in more formal language he "delivered an instrument of advice" to the GG, hoping the latter would take his advice and issue the various writs (legal instruments)  required to hold a general election.

    When the Chief Returning Officer uses the term "drop a writ" in English, he says "délivrer un bref" (deliver, issue, publsh a legal document).