(The Following Article first appeared in the April 2016 Lexpert)
Politics Hijacks Words
As we North Americans have been barraged by political verbiage over the last two years, I am reminded of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s quip that “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” Actually, von Clausewitz may have reversed the categories as several terms found in politics were found originally in the military arena. For example, both campaign and rally acquired military senses in the 17th century and political ones only in the 19th century.
We see an interplay with politics in other domains. Take religion, specifically Catholicism as two common political terms were born in the Vatican. Propaganda comes from the Latin phrase Congregation du propaganda fide, “Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith” founded in 1622 by a committee of Cardinals responsible for foreign missions during the papacy of Gregory XV. It is in the 19th century that the word acquired its political sense of the systematic dissemination of information, often in a biased sense. And if you find political nepotism as unsavoury as propaganda, again there is a papal connection. It seems that some of the early Popes liked to bestow special favours upon their nephews, (as well as their illegitimate sons) and in Latin the word for nephew is nepos. By the 19th century the word was broadened to refer to conferring unfair preferment to friends or those within ones sphere of influence. Also, in the 17th century, the word charisma, oft applied to political leaders, had a strictly theological application and referred to the free gift of God’s grace. The modern sense of the magnetic appeal of someone only arose in the 1940s.
The language of politics has borrowed from other disciplines. Cynics will not be shocked to discover that a political term has been hijacked from the domain of piracy. I refer to the word filibuster which derives from the Dutch vrijbuiter which combines the word vrij, “free” and bueter, “plunderer.” Originally, filibuster referred to pirates who pillaged the colonies in the Spanish West Indies during the 17th century. However, in the middle of the 19th century bands of adventurers organized expeditions from the United States, in violation of international law, for the purpose of revolutionizing certain states in Central America and the West Indies. By the end of the 19th century, the word came to refer to long-winded U.S. Senators whose obstructive practices were seen as akin to the havoc created by marauding pirates; they effectively hijacked the agenda of the Senate.
The term caucus in North America refers to the members of a legislative assembly that belong to a particular party. Most etymologists believe that the word was adapted from the Algonquin Caw-cawaassough, which means “counsellor.” The Algonquin word was recorded in a journal by Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame in the early part of the 17th century with the sense of one who advises or encourages. Caucus first surfaced in New England in the early part of the 18th century and was virtually unknown in British English until the 1870s when it became a popular political buzzword.
Recently, the electoral district Sarnia-Lambton in Ontario became the champion bellwether riding in Canada having voted for the winning part in every election since 1963. Both of these italicized words have a political sense that is restricted mostly to Canada. Originally, a bellwether designated the head sheep of a flock whose prize for leadership was having a bell hung around its neck - wether is a term for a male sheep or castrated ram. By the 1930s the sense of “indicating a trend” emerged. The electoral sense of riding, however, is not a Canadian coinage but rather one has to look to Yorkshire, England for the provenance. Until 1974, Yorkshire was divided into three ridings and the word riding came into English in the 15th century from Old Norse thrithjungr, which originally was rendered riding in English as trithing.
While the word hustings is now used almost exclusively to refer to the rounds of political activity during an election, its origin was quite different. As early as the 11th century it was rendered singular as husting which literally means “house thing” with thing referring to a council meeting. Over time, it referred specifically to the court of law in the Guildhall of London. It was only in the 20th century that it acquired the modern sense of electioneering.
And finally, the current sense of poll as in “going to the polls” arose only in the 17th century. The source of the word is its literal meaning “head” and this was its sense starting in the 13th century. One way of counting votes in an election is by counting heads as seen in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in 1607 when Coriolanus states “We are the greater poll, and in true fear they gave us our demands.”
Perhaps the proposed electoral reform in Canada or the election this year in the U.S. will afford some marauding politician the opportunity to hijack other words.
Richler’s book Wordplay:Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in April 2016.