The vocabulary of voting… a look at election etymology
As Britain goes to the polls, the thought of millions of people up and down the country shuffling into polling booths, quietly putting a cross on a piece of paper and dropping it into a box can sometimes make me misty-eyed about the age-old simplicity of the democratic ritual. But just as age-old as that process itself are the roots of some of the terminology surrounding it – which can stem from the dawn of democracy.
Pebbles and ballots
Take psephology, for example – the study of elections and trends in voting. As the exit polls come out, and we all wait for the returning officers to announce the results from the various constituencies, there’ll be plenty of psephologists in evidence on the airwaves analysing the trends and putting data into the Swingometer. Their name comes from the Greek word psephos meaning pebble… The link isn’t immediately obvious, until you learn that the Ancient Greeks used pebbles to cast their votes – apparently depositing a small stone into one of two urns to mark their choice. After the vote had taken place, the contents of the urns were emptied and counted – but of course, all pebbles looking pretty much alike, nobody could tell whose was whose, preserving the principle of secret voting. The term psephology itself, though – seductive as it is – doesn’t seem to have come into use until much, much later… in fact, until the 1950s (perhaps the first time psephologists were really needed, as the TV and radio age dawned.)
Another term you’ll have heard a lot today, ballot, also harks back to the same voting method. It comes from the 16th century Italian ballotta, the diminutive of balla, meaning a small ball – originally denoting the small coloured balls placed in a container to register a vote.
There’s evidence of Classical voting practices, too, when it comes to the name we give for those for whom we’re voting – the candidates. The word itself dates only from the 17th century, but comes from the Latin candidatus, meaning ‘white robed’ – derived from the white toga worn by those standing for office in ancient Rome. Rather different from the slightly more colourful rosettes of various hues touted by today’s prospective MPs… though perhaps Classics-lover Boris Johnson might quite like to sport a white toga if given half a chance!
Of course what all the candidates would really like is a mandate – that is, the authority to carry out his or her policies, gained by winning an election. And there too we see the influence of Latin- with the term coming from mandatum, meaning ‘something commanded’ – combining the words manus (hand) and dare (to give.) A word, then, emphasising that all MPs are literally given their jobs by the hands of their constituents.
Before the election
Before being able to win such a position, though, the candidates will need to publish their manifesto – a written, public statement (or tome of several hundred pages, depending on what they prefer) declaring their intentions, motives and views. It’s a word that’s been around since the mid 17th century, but comes originally from the Latin manifestus or ‘obvious’, the idea being to make your ideas public and clear before a vote is held. And even that word vote, used as a noun since the days of Middle English, comes from Latin, too – from votum meaning a ‘vow or wish’, although the candidates and voters alike probably hope the ballot-casting process is a little more scientific, and even predictable, than mere wishing!
Meanwhile, getting that vote involves the long and tiring job of canvassing – knocking on doors all around your constituency, perhaps travelling in a battlebus to get from place to place, trying to persuade people that you’re the worthiest candidate. The origins of this word sound even more painful than doorknocking for hours in the rain – it seems the original verb canvass meant, in the early 16th century, to toss someone up and down in a canvas sheet, either as a game, or a form of punishment (it sounds more like the latter to me…) That verb later came to mean assaulting, attacking or criticising someone, and from that, was then extended to mean ‘discuss’ in general (perhaps in the same sense as ‘tossing around’ ideas)… from which eventually, it came to mean ‘seek support for’ or ‘solicit votes’. ‘Canvassing’ in its original sense is perhaps a fate we’ve all thought of for those local candidates who knock on our door just as we’re sitting down to eat…
As for what all that canvassing might translate into, nationally, all the talk from TV pundits is of a hung parliament – a curious term meaning that no one party will have an overall majority. It seems it’s used along the same lines as the term a hung jury – meaning an indecisive, inconclusive stalemate – and in the same sense as hang fire, meaning something paused or put on hold. But although Britain has actually had five hung parliaments since the start of the twentieth century, the term itself didn’t enter into common usage until the mid 1970s – in particular, after Harold Wilson’s failure to win conclusively in the February 1974 election.
Meanwhile, of course, it’s worth remembering what the ability to vote symbolizes – our freedom. And that can be seen in the word franchise itself, meaning the right to vote in public elections. In Middle English, it denoted someone being granted legal immunity, but its roots are based on the old French word franc or franche, meaning free. So as we watch the tellers counting up all those millions of ballots, and wait to find out what it’ll mean for our lives, it’s interesting to think about how the very words we use to talk about the process reveal the long history of others who have done the same, from the Ancient Greeks through to today.