Wood on Words: Political terms have long history

Barry Wood

Tuesday is Election Day, and informal surveys show that an overwhelming majority of Americans ... will be glad when it’s finally over.

Was there really any doubt after the U.S. Supreme Court opened the campaign financing floodgates on Jan. 21 that money would pour into candidates’ war chests and that the general discourse would feature more “dis” and more “coarse.”

“War chests” is a particularly appropriate term for the repositories for such money. After all, Webster’s first definition of “campaign” is “a series of military operations with a particular objective in a war.”

Additionally, the most recent ancestor of “campaign” is the French “campagne,” which is “open country suited to military maneuvers; hence, military expedition.”

Following its roots deeper, however, we come to the Late Latin “campania,” meaning “level country,” which was derived from the Latin “campus,” “a field” — and not necessarily a battlefield.

The English “campus” and all the “camp” words are members of this family as well.

In political campaigns, as in military ones, there is suffering. But “suffrage,” as in the right to vote, is not about suffering. At least, the two words aren’t related.

The verb “suffer” has been traced to the Latin “sufferre” for “to undergo, endure,” which was a combination of a form of the prefix “sub-” and the verb “ferre,” “to bear.”

“Suffrage,” on the other hand, is from the Latin “suffragium,” which also meant “decision, vote.” That word also was a combination of the suffix “sub-,” this time with “fragor” — “loud applause,” and, originally, “din, a crashing.”

In English, “suffrage” originally was “a prayer or act of intercession or supplication,” which is still Webster’s first definition.

By the way, the dictionary also says that the correct term for “the right of women to vote in governmental elections” is “woman suffrage” — not “woman’s” or “women’s.” Perhaps that’s because there’s already an “s” sound in the middle. Maybe we should vote on it.

Speaking of “vote,” this is another word that has changed its ways. Its Latin root is “votum,” meaning “a wish” or “a vow,” from the verb for “to vow,” “vovere.”

This sense has been retained in religious contexts through such words as “votary,” “votive,” “devotion” and “devout.”

In the political arena, candidates often make vows and voters are left wishing they would follow through on them.

When we vote, we go to the “polls,” one of those plural-sounding words for a single place, “a place where votes are cast and recorded.”

The first sense of the word “poll” was “head,” possibly of Low German origin. According to “The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories,” “poll” then came to mean “an individual person among a number.” And that “developed into the ‘number of people ascertained by counting of heads’ and

then, in the 17th century, the ‘counting of heads or of votes.’ ”

These days, we generally associate a “head count” with taking attendance or a census, preferring a “show of hands” for voting.

Finally, “pols” (with just one “l”) is slang for “experienced politicians,” many of whom may not care for what happens this year at the polls.

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