With the Presidential election just days away, I was curious about the language of voting – not the content of the candidates’ platforms, not the ideology behind the parties but the history of the words of government themselves, the etymology of voting. So I turned to my trusted source, the Oxford English Dictionary, and searched for the meaning of a few key terms.
The word “ballot” comes from the Italian word “ballotta,” which means “small coloured ball” that was placed in a box for a secret vote. One used these balls to vote for “candidates,” meaning those who wore white togas (Latin origin). In Roman times, political office was considered a privilege, an honour, and the person running was seen as an “aspirant,” someone who elevated themselves. White, having connotations of purity and cleanliness, implied that candidates were better than the rest of us.
The word “governor” has a varied history. In the 14th century, it was used to name a captain or pilot of a ship. It also refers to any of the Holy Trinity, which lends the position of governor the supreme power of god. Perhaps for this reason, the term “governor” strongly separates the one governing from those governed, who are seen as decidedly inferior, and, if you have seen a Dickens novel adapted for Masterpiece Theatre or the movie My Fair Lady, you know the word was commonly used by the lower classes to refer to any gentleman of the upper classes. In a similar manner, the term was used to denote an employer, a military officer, or one’s father. In its rare reference to a machine, “governor” suggests something that creates order and regularity. The word also has its roots in the one who is the educator of a prince – the one who shapes a leader’s mind – but, in contemporary America, governors often strive to become Presidents themselves rather than their advisers.
The word “president” surprised me because it has a much older origin than I had expected. It originates in Anglo-Norman use from the late 13th century referring to the person appointed the head of a gathering, but it has an older root in classical times as the head of a Christian community or academic institution.
When we “inaugurate” the President in January 2013, that event has its roots in auguring, divining omens, particularly from the flight of birds. The word has connotations of consecration and sanctity, giving the events and person a sacred status. Inaugurations are solemn and formal beginnings, a chance to start anew, an investment of significance and dignity for the newly initiated.
To “vote” has its origins in vows and desires and has the same root as the word “devote.” Again, language from the elections is imbued with a religious mantel. What is interesting about these particular meanings is that the concept of voting is future oriented. It references promises and hopes and dreams for tomorrow rather than an act in the present. As voting begins in earnest on Tuesday morning, as people make their choice between, mainly, Obama and Romney, the future of many American institutions indeed lies in the balance – which suggests the darker side of the term to “vote:” that of devoting or consigning something to destruction.
– Eleni Anastasiou, 2nd November 2012