Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Super Thursday

By request, a (brief) revival of the Carnival of Etymologies, with an election-year theme.

Election goes back to the 13th century in English, and earlier than that in Anglo-French documents. It comes from Latin electionem, which is from the stem of eligere, "to pick out, to select, to choose," also "to gather, to collect." This is a compound of ex- "out" and -ligere, the combination form of legere "to choose, to gather."

Latin legere is prolific in Modern English, with many descendants through its alternate meaning "to read" ("to pick out words," or perhaps "to gather up meaning"). Sacrilege, legible, lecture, lesson, legend, neglect, collect, legal, diligent, select, intelligence, and religion all share linguistic DNA with election.

In ancient languages, words for "to gather, to collect" seemed to drift toward speech ("to choose words") or writing. The ancient Greek cousin of Latin legere was the verb legein, which in Homer was "to pick out, to select, to collect, to enumerate," but by classical Greek times had come to mean "to say, to tell, to speak, to declare" (and which has got into English in one or the other of these senses in eulogy, catalogue, monologue, dialect, dialogue, anthology, prologue, and all the discipline names ending in -ology).

In Latin, the word's various forms partook of both the literal ("gather") and figurative ("read") senses. Beside legere stood its brother lignum "wood, firewood," literally “that which is gathered.”

The Latin word gives French a modern verb for "read" (lire), but English maintains its native read (West Saxon rædan, Anglian redan) in this sense. The Germanic root of that word, however, meant something closer to "to rule, to advise" (as still in the modern German relative raten "to advise, counsel," also "guess"). The likely Proto-Indo-European root of it is *rei- "to reason, count," which makes it a relative of Greek arithmos "number amount." The transference to "understand the meaning of written symbols" is unique to Old English and (perhaps under English influence) Old Norse raða.

Electioneer first is attested in 1789 in the writing of Thomas Jefferson, and it probably was formed on the model of auctioneer, as the verb engineer was not yet then in use.

Nomination has come unmoored from its etymological sense in American democracy. It literally means "to name, to call by name," and when it first was used in reference to candidates for office, in the late 15th century, that was appropriate, since such persons might typically be named by someone else. Now, however, you name yourself as a candidate (we call it announcing one's candidacy), but you're not the nominee (a word first recorded in the mid-1600s) until you've won the approval of your party.

Another American term for this, to throw (one's) hat in the ring, originally meant "to take up a challenge in prize-fighting," and was a literal image. It is attested in that sense from 1847.

To run for office in an election is recorded from 1826, originally in the U.S., which is earlier than the first recorded use of this word in the sense "to be in charge of" (1861). Probably the transfered use to elections comes from horse racing.

Candidate comes from the Latin candidatus which was used to mean "white-robed." An office-seeker in ancient Rome supposedly wore a bleached white toga -- toga candida. Latin candidum, in addition to "white," had a metaphoric meaning "pure, sincere," but this doesn't seem to be connected directly to the modern political sense, and a candidate doesn't have to be candid.

[The Wikipedia article on togas is helpfully illustrated with this photo:

and the caption " 'Togas' worn to parties by women are much scantier than true togas." Thank the gods for Wikipedia!]

Candidates out campaigning sometimes are said to be on the hustings. Unlike most of the election-based words, hustings is good old Germanic. It got into Old English via the viking word husðing "council," a compound of hus "house" and ðing "assembly." It was so called because it was a meeting of the men who formed the "household" of a nobleman or king. (The native Old English word for this was less aristocratic, folc-gemot). In Iceland (whose language is an offshoot of Old Norse), the nation's general assembly still is called Althing, which I think is literally "All-Thing."

In English, the plural (hustings) became the usual form c.1500, and the sense of "temporary platform for political speeches" developed by 1719, from London's Court of Hustings, presided over by the Lord Mayor, which was held on a platform in the Guildhall. This sense then gradually broadened to encompass the whole election process.

The Old Norse ðing (pronounced "thing") is the same word as modern English thing (Old English þing). The English word, too, originally had a sense of "meeting, assembly," and only in later Old English did it also come to mean "entity, being, matter," via the notion of "subject of deliberation in an assembly." The Proto-Germanic root, *thengan, seems to have meant "appointed time."

You can see a similar sense evolution in French chose and Spanish cosa "thing," both from Latin causa "judicial process, lawsuit, case," and in Latin itself, where res "affair, thing," also meant "case at law, cause." And of course in cosa nostra, the euphemistic name for "the Mafia in America," from Italian and literally meaning "this thing of ours."

Primary in reference to elections is first recorded in English in 1792, but with reference to France; in a U.S. context, it is recorded from 1835, but primary caucus was in use by 1821.

Caucus itself is a bit of a mystery word, much speculated upon. It goes back to 1763 in American English, and is perhaps from caucauasu, a word meaning "counselor" in an Algonquian dialect of Virginia. Or it may refer to the Caucus Club of Boston, a 1760s social and political club that may have taken its name from Modern Greek kaukos "drinking cup." Another suggestion is that it is a corruption of caulker's (meeting). Etymologists can't decide; take your pick.

Polls have gotten a lot of slagging in this primary season. The noun polle originally meant "hair of the head" when it got into early Middle English from some North Sea German language (cf. Middle Dutch pol "head, top"). The meaning "collection of votes" is first recorded 1625, from the notion of "counting heads;" the meaning "survey of public opinion" is first recorded 1902. Its original "head" sense is not commonly heard nowadays, but it survives in polliwog, poleax ("kind of axe used as a weapon or by butchers," on notion of either beheading or head-splitting, but the spelling was altered by confusion with pole), and tadpole (from Middle English tadde "toad").