Visit theallusionist.org/electionlexicon to hear or read more about this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, spin the wheel of linguistic fortune.
This episode comes out the day before the 2015 General Election in the UK, so please join me for a jaunt through the etymology of some of the words that are the linguistic flies buzzing around the carcase of democracy.
Today’s show is brought to you by The Tasting Room, the wine club which allows you to vote with your mouth. Visit tastingroom.com/allusionist to get their sample kit of wines for just $6.95. You tell them which kinds please your palate, and they’ll accordingly select bottles of wines to send you each quarter. If you don’t like one of the bottles, they’ll give you a new one. They’ll never stop trying to please you, unlike politicians, what what?
On with the Allusionist Election Lexicon.
[Megaphone lines are HZ shouting through a megaphone at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park.]
MEGAPHONE: Enfranchised humans! Are you disillusioned by democracy?
HZ: Democracy, rule of the people, from ancient Greek ‘demos’ meaning people or population, and ‘kratos’ meaning rule or government.
MEGAPHONE: You must be tired out from doing all that governing yourselves, because you’ve been doing a pretty sloppy job. I propose a solution that is more straightforward. More honest. More etymological. Politicians use words to tell lies. Vote for etymologocracy, and words will be used to find the truth in politics. Under etymologocracy, I vow to put the ball back into ‘ballot’.
HZ: It is a real ball in 'ballot'. Some of you in other countries might have jazzier ways of voting in elections, but in present-day Britain, we do it by feeding ballot papers into the mouths of ballot boxes. But casting a vote used to be an exciting ball sport. Small balls, known as ‘ballotta’ in Italian, were used to cast anonymous votes: a white ball meant ‘aye’, and a black ball meant ‘no’, thanks to which we also have the term ‘blackball’.
MEGAPHONE: Voter turnout will skyrocket when I bring back ball-based voting. I defy any of you to feel politically apathetic as you slam-dunk your vote through the ballot hoop.
HZ: Secret ballots weren’t all balls: people could cast their votes with shells, beads, leaves or fragments of pottery. By the end of polling day, the ballot box must have looked like a debris-strewn beach.
MEGAPHONE: Under etymologocracy, political parties will behave like parties. Everyone will be gathered in the kitchen of the Houses of Parliament, except for one person who is passed out drunk on the stairs, and the government will provide bowls of crisps on every street corner.
HZ: ‘Party’ is from the Old French word ‘partie’, meaning a part or portion or division. It’s been around to mean political party for at least 700 years, implying the division of people along political lines, but if it’s dividing people into groups, or parties, I guess it’s pretty natural for the word to evolve into kind of its own opposite, to suggest people being brought together. 1716 is the first recorded use of party in the sense of ‘social gathering’.
MEGAPHONE: The ruling party has to bring the cake.
If it’s a coalition, Battenberg cake.
HZ: The word ‘lobbying’ has slightly contentious origins - though considerably less contentious than the act itself - but regardless of whether it was the UK or the US who first came up with the term, by the 1830s it was definitely in currency to describe the activities of people who used to try to influence politics in the lobbies outside administrative chambers.
And the word ‘lobby’ itself was from the medieval Latin for the cloisters in monasteries.
MEGAPHONE: But there will no lobbying under etymologocracy. It will be mandatory for all kinds of campaigning to take place outside.
HZ: ‘Campaign’ descended from the Latin word for ‘field’, ‘campus’. English got it via the French ‘campagne’, meaning countryside.
MEGAPHONE: If, for some reason, you can’t do all your political campaigning from a field in the French countryside, at least do it standing in front of a poster of a Monet painting or something. Or a mousemat with a picture of the Waterlilies on. Just make some effort!
HZ: 'Campaign' entered the political vocabulary by 1809, but before then, since the 1640s, ‘campaign’ had referred to army operations. In winter, the troops would remain in their quarters, then in summer they’d head outside to do some battling in the country - campagne, campaign.
MEGAPHONE: Speaking of battling - You, sir, do you think the standard of political debate would improve if it returned to its linguistic roots of physical fighting?
HZ: The word ‘debate’ arrived in English in the 14th century from the Old French ‘debatre’. The ‘batre’ meant to beat - it has the same root as 'battle' and 'battery'. And the ‘de’ prefix was an intensifier, so the whole word meant to give something a really good beating.
But, on a related note, the word ‘argue’ has surprisingly lovely origins. Before it meant what it means now - and I mean WAY before, we’re talking proto-Indo-European roots here, thousands of years ago - it had an origin in common with silver. The ‘arg’ meant bright and shiny and clear. So presumably ‘argue’ used to mean to clarify a point of view, not ‘something the person you’re stuck next to at a dinner party wants to do after they’ve had too many sherries.’
MEGAPHONE: And my most solemn promise to you. Etymologocracy will reestablish polling according to hair.
HZ: ‘Poll’ descends from the Middle English word for ‘hair’, which by proximity came to mean ‘head’ and thence to represent a person: a poll is alluding to a head-count. Luckily polls weren’t literally hair-counts, which would have taken ages, and been quite problematic.
MEGAPHONE: If you’re a baldy - sorry. No vote for you. If you’re wearing a hat, that counts as an abstention. If you’ve got a beard - double votes for you! If you’re a bear - you can swing the whole thing.
HZ: I can’t finish this episode without mentioning the Tories, the nickname of the Conservative Party. The nickname actually predated the name-name by nearly two centuries; the Tories had been around as a faction since the late 17th century, but officially became the Conservatives in the mid 1830s under the leadership of Sir Robert Peel. But they still use the nickname, even though it came from an uncomplimentary Irish word meaning robber or bandit.
MEGAPHONE: Sometimes the jokes are too easy.
HZ: That was the Allusionist Election Lexicon, and if you’re listening a while after it came out, maybe it seems like a quaint relic of a past time to you in your futuristic utopia or dystopia.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX. Visit Radiotopia.fm to hear the greatest shows on earth - amongst them you’ll find The Truth. So that’s where the politicians hid it!
HZ: The Truth is movies for your ears, and it’s absolutely stunning. Check it out. Radiotopia are currently polling your opinions about podcasts, so we can make our shows better for you - go to surveynerds.com/allusionist to share your thoughts, and if you do so by 15th May, you could win some fancy Tivoli headphones.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the generosity of you listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is...
pismire. Noun: ant. From the Middle English ‘piss’ - because that’s what they thought anthills smelt like - and mire, which meant ant. Pismire.
MEGAPHONE: Try using it in an email today.
HZ: The episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with megaphone support from Matt Hill. Matt makes the Spark London true stories podcast, which has no megaphones. Their loss.
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