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Thick with meaning: 6 UK political terms explored

The final episode of Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Thick of It will air in the UK this Saturday. Journalists love comparing plotlines in The Thick of It to real-life political events, and sometimes life has even imitated art: politicians picked up and popularized the word ‘omnishambles’, first used by foul-mouthed The Thick of It character Malcolm Tucker. The word has even spawned further coinages: Romney-shambles, in reference perceived gaffes made by US presidential candidate Mitt Romney; and omnivoreshambles, in reference to the now-postponed badger cull in the UK.

Politics has been a favourite topic for humorists throughout the centuries, but have you ever stopped to think about the language of politics? So many of the terms used in the political sphere mean quite different things outside of that world. Here’s a guide to our top six most confusable words in politics.

Minister

Political meaning: a head of a government department: the Defence Minister.

Not to be confused with: a minister of religion.

Origin: Middle English; also in the sense ‘a person acting under the authority of another’: from Old French ministre (noun), ministrer (verb), from Latin minister ‘servant’, from minus ‘less’.

Spin

Political meaning: the presentation of information in a particular way; a slant, especially a favourable one: he tried to put a positive spin on the president’s campaign.

Not to be confused with: a rapid turning or whirling motion.

Origin: Old English spinnan ‘draw out and twist (fibre’); related to German spinnen. The noun dates from the mid-19th century.

Whip

Political meaning: an official of a political party appointed to maintain parliamentary discipline among its members, especially so as to ensure attendance and voting in debates: a written notice from a whip requesting attendance for voting.

Not to be confused with: a strip of leather or cord used for flogging a person or for urging an animal.

Also not to be confused with: a dessert consisting of cream or eggs beaten into a light fluffy mass with fruit, chocolate, or other ingredients.

Origin: Middle English: probably from Middle Low German and Middle Dutch wippen ‘swing, leap, dance’, from a Germanic base meaning ‘move quickly’. The noun is partly from the verb, reinforced by Middle Low German wippe ‘quick movement’.

Chair

Political meaning: the person in charge of a meeting or of an organization (chair is used as a gender-neutral alternative to chairman or chairwoman).

Not to be confused with: a separate seat for one person, typically with a back and four legs.

Origin: Middle English: from Old French chaiere (modern chaire ‘bishop’s throne, etc.’, chaise ‘chair’), from Latin cathedra, meaning ‘seat’, from Greek kathedra.

Party

Political meaning: a formally constituted political group that contests elections and attempts to form or take part in a government: draft the party’s election manifesto.

Not to be confused with: a social gathering of invited guests, typically involving eating, drinking, and entertainment: an engagement party.

Origin: Middle English denoting a body of people united in opposition to others: from Old French partie, based on Latin partiri, meaning ‘divide into parts’. The social gathering sense of ‘party’ is actually a few decades later than the political sense, dating from the early 18th century.

Cabinet

Political meaning: the committee of senior ministers responsible for controlling government policy, who meet in the cabinet.

Not to be confused with: a cupboard with drawers or shelves for storing or displaying articles.

Origin: The two different senses may have different roots. The political sense may derive from an English diminutive of ‘cabin’ as an earlier political sense of ‘cabinet’ refers specifically to the small, private room in which the meetings were held. The non-political sense is related to the French cabinet, itself related to the Italian gabinetto which in turn finds its origins in the root for ‘cabin’.

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