The words they are a-changin': Making change in the world of politics

This week’s video takes on all the election hoopla by looking at the word “ambition” and other political vocabulary:

Ambition itself was the jumping off point here, and its surprising etymology and background in the world of Roman politics, and since politics is in the news so much lately with the US 2016 election going on, it seemed a fitting time to take this one on. But more than just giving a rundown of political vocabulary, which has already been so well done by others such as the Allusionist and numerous Mashed Radish posts (such as this excellent one on the word “candidate”), I wanted to add the further dimension of how language change and changing values go hand in hand. Our words reflect our current value systems, and both are very changeable, as with the positive and pejorative senses of the word “ambition”. Another literary example of this that I mentioned before in our video “Paddle Your Own Canoe” is the continual reinterpretation of the figure of Odysseus/Ulysses over the years. In the ancient epic The Odyssey, after returning home from the Trojan War, Odysseus is giving a prophecy that he must make another journey, and having already been away from home for 20 years and struggling so hard to return he isn’t really happy about this. In the medieval poem The Inferno (the first part of his Divine Comedy), Dante puts Ulysses in Hell for going journeying again as he takes it as an act of ambition. When the Victorian poet tells the story in his poem “Ulysses” he celebrates the hero’s ambition and striving. We make of ambition what we will, depending on values and contexts.

I don’t have too much left on the table for this one, just a few little tidbits that didn’t fit into the final video. The word “poll”, meaning originally “head” may well come from the same root as “ballot”, or at least one akin to it (see the excellent Mashed Radish post on the word “poll”). If so, that would be a nice extra connection tying “poll” and “ballot” together.

In Canadian political circles by the way, the riding is not officially termed a riding. It’s officially an electoral district, but the name is so commonly used that even Elections Canada, the body that oversees elections, uses the term in common contexts. By the way, we can see a similar formation to that thrithing sense of three parts in the word farthing, an old denomination of coin in Britain. It’s worth a quarter of a penny, hence the name, and in the middle ages it was even common to produce one by literally cutting a penny in four, as you can see below:

And as for the Canadian Parliament, the upper house is actually called the Senate. I wonder how this term was adopted. It obviously couldn’t be called the House of Lords as in Britain, so did they borrow the name from the US? If there are any experts out there on Canadian political history, I’d love some insight. Also, are there other countries that have senates? Let me know in the comments. Also, I greatly simplified the discussion of the history of early US political parties — there were numerous parties back then with shifting platforms, and I’m only vaguely aware of this fascinating complexity so also feel free to chime in with any interesting points I’ve left out.

But speaking of Icelandic etymologies, the Althing makes me think of the temporary dwellings that attendees of these old medieval councils stayed in — which were called “booths”. That’s where we get the word “booth”. It comes from a Germanic root that means “to dwell” and also gives us the second elements in the words neighbour and husband, and goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root which means to exist, giving us “be”. There’s a wonderfully detailed post on the word “booth” by Anatoly Liberman.

If you want to hear more about neoclassical and gothic architecture, check out our video “Sublime” in which we get into the topic in much more detail. Oh and if Thomas Nast rings a bell, you may remember him from our “Cocktail” video from way back, with his connection to the first celebrity bartender Jerry Thomas.

Since I gave the Greek origin of the term “idiot” I thought I might here round out Goddard’s other categories. The word “imbecile” comes through French from Latin in- meaning “not” and baculum meaning “stick”, the idea being that someone is “weak” because they lack support, and this weakness narrowed in sense to refer to those weak in the mind. "Moron" comes ultimately from Greek moros meaning “foolish, stupid”, and though there isn’t an earlier etymon for this, there does seem to be a Sanskrit cognate murah. By the way, Goddard himself had this to say about democracy: “Democracy, then, means that the people rule by selecting the wisest, most intelligent and most human to tell them what to do to be happy.” I’m not sure that this fits with most people’s definition of democracy.

And finally a little bit more about politics in the ancient world. In ancient Athens, though opinions about democracy were indeed mixed, that didn’t stop them from personifying the concept as the goddess Demokratia, and making offerings to her. The assembly was called the Ekklesia, literally meaning “calling out”. The word was adopted to refer to the church in Christian times, and we get the English word “ecclesiastical” from it. Voting was done initially by a show of hands, though without an exact count — I guess they just estimated. Ballots were, however, used in the law courts. One particular instance of voting in ancient Greece is ostracism, which was exiling someone dangerous to the state for a period of 10 years. Voting was done with pottery fragments called in ancient Greek ostrakon, related to osteon meaning “bone” (from which we get medical terms like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis) and ostreon meaning “oyster” (from which we get the word oyster). The most notable difference between Athenian democracy and our modern systems, by the way, was that with the exception of some military positions, the government officials were not elected, but chosen by lot, essentially at random out of the entire citizen body, and officials only held their positions for a year. This meant that there were very few political campaigns, and prevented the development of an exclusive political class like at Rome. (This radical form of the democracy was fairly short-lived, however, lasting about 150 years).

In ancient Rome voting was initially oral, with officials called rogatores (literally “questioners”) asking each voter for their vote and then writing it down, but later secret ballots involving wax tablets were instituted. Interestingly, it was not simple majorities but voting blocks that decided elections, with voters voting in assigned groups and the group vote as a whole following the winner of that group, a bit similar I suppose to the winner-take-all system of winning whole states in the US Electoral College system. In terms of the popularism in Roman politics, we can talk of the two major factions, the Populares who appealed to the lower classes and the popular assembly to achieve political ends, countering the ruling elite who stressed the authority of the Senate, known (at least to themselves) as the Optimates meaning literally “the best” — though the leaders of both groups were from the elite senatorial class, so we shouldn’t think of the Populares as proto-Marxists or anything. This political situation is one of the major features of Roman politics, especially during the later Republic — for instance Julius Caesar was considered one of the Populares, and Cicero was an Optimate. It’s not dissimilar to modern politics in the US and many other countries, where even though the political platforms of the parties may be aimed at the working class or the middle class, the politicians all usually end up coming from the wealthy elite. Some things don’t change, I guess!