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Word Nerd: Deconstructing Political ED (Electile Dysfunction)

On August 2 the writ was dropped in Canada. Stephen Harper advised Governor General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament. Johnston then issued a writ of election for a new Parliament, thus launching a lengthy federal election campaign.

Actually, no writ is dropped; writs of election are issued. The sense of drop is idiomatic, as in “drop a line” or “drop in.” The term “drop the writ” is a corruption of “draw up the writ” and in 2005 the CBC issued a style memorandum to journalists advising them not to drop the “drop the writ” phrase, finding it more colourful than the correct term.

Another electoral term with a surprising origin is “riding.” Only in Canada is an electoral district referred to by this term originating from Yorkshire, England. One would suppose that the term has something to do with the verb “to ride” but such is not the case. Until 1974, Yorkshire was divided for administrative purposes into three ridings, and the key word here is three. The word riding came into English in the 15th century from the Old Norse thrithjungr, “third part”, and was originally rendered in English as “trithing.”

Just as “riding” is not connected to “ride,” the word “candidate” is not related to the candid nature of those seeking office. If candidates were etymologically correct, they would wear white clothes because the word derives from the Latin candidatus, “dressed in white.” In ancient Rome, it was the custom for those standing for election in the Senate to don white togas, probably in an attempt to convince the populace they were as pure as snow.

Another word that only appears during an election is “hustings” and, as we know, candidates are prone to hitting them during campaigns. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines hustings as “The political campaigning leading up to an election; e.g., canvassing votes and making speeches.” The word was originally rendered in the singular and literally means “house thing” but “thing” originally had the sense of “assembly,” and these council meetings would be called by a lord or king and attended by his particular “house.” Over time “husting” acquired other specific meanings such as a court of law in the Guildhall in London and a platform on which candidates stood to address the electorate. In the 20th century, hustings has come to refer to the general hullabaloo created during an election campaign.

When you cast your ballot, you might take solace that, although riding doesn’t derive from ride, ballot does come from “ball”, borrowed from the Italian ballotta meaning “little ball.” In days of yore, people often voted by dropping little balls into a receptacle. Related to “ballot” is the idea that since a white ball often meant a “yes” vote and a black ball designated a “no” vote, the term blackball came to refer to exclusion from a club in the late 18th century.

By the way, if you believe that politicians are crooks, it might be because you somehow intuited that etymologically the word “Tory” is associated with thievery. According to the OED, a Tory was “In the 17th century, one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers.” Lest you find this anti-Irish, you can take small comfort from knowing that the OED points out that within a decade the word’s banditry label was extended to other races such as Scottish Highlanders. It quickly became a term to refer to any Irish Papist and, by the middle of the 17th century, the word was often used by British commentators as a synonym for “bandit.” Through a process of major political flip-flopping over the years, this term, originally referring to brigands, came to refer to those who vigorously supported the Crown.

Now that you’re lexically prepared, don’t neglect to follow the dropping of the writ and vote for the candidate in your riding by dropping the ball for the party who might be Tory, but certainly doesn’t harbour bandits (with the possible exception of a handful of Senators).

Howard Richler’s book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2016.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Howard, After a long time. “Riding” is indeed used in India in the same electoral sense, probably a legacy from the colonial past. The Old Norse “thrithjungr” is really a most interesting etymological gem, since the Sanskrit for “the third part” is “thrithjungsh” the spelling being the closest transliteration I could do — Dipak Basu

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