Q&A: Election terms explained

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're finding the origin of election terms…

Q: Hi AWC, how old is the word “election”?

A: It’s fairly old – dating back to about 1300. It comes from the Old French word ‘elecion’ and earlier Latin ‘eligere’. Not surprisingly, both relate to the “act of choosing”.

Q: So I’m guessing “selection” also came from the same origin?

A: You guess correctly – although that word didn’t actually appear until much later – around the 1600s.

Q: How odd. To select something seems so fundamental. 

A: Don’t confuse behaviour for a word to describe it. Of course humans have been doing things like electing and selecting since ancient times. It’s just that they only more recently got round to giving those things names.

Q: Okay, let’s stay with this theme. What about the word “vote”?

A: It popped up in English first as a noun in the 1400s – from the Latin ‘votum’ which meant ‘a vow, wish, solemn pledge’ etc. The verb “vote” originally meant “to vow” but by the late 1500s, it was linked to casting a vote.

Q: So “vow” and “vote” are fairly related?

A: Yep. Initially, they both had those same “solemn pledge” vibes. It could be argued that both still do (you technically cast ‘votes’ for each other in a wedding ceremony!). Of course, these days, “vote” is more tied to a choice than a promise.

Q: So talk to me about a “ballot” – as in “casting a ballot at the polls”.

A: Not to be confused with poles while you do ballet…

Q: Huh? Oh no, those are called barres – more of a horizontal handrail than a pole. 

A: If you say so.

Q: So, a “ballot”?

A: Ah yes. This one’s quite fun. A ‘ballot’ was, as it sounds, originally a small ball used for secret voting. The word came from Italian ‘pallotte’ – a variation on ‘ball’. It dates back to the 1540s as a method of voting, and by the time America became a thing in the 1770s, its meaning expanded to include the paper sheets we still have today.

Q: And the “poll” itself?

A: The word is quite old – dating back to the 1300s, originally meaning the head of a person or animal. It wasn’t until the 1620s that a “poll” became a ‘counting of heads’ (or votes) – and it wouldn’t be explicitly linked to “voting at an election” (along with the concept of a “polling place”) until the 1830s.

Q: What about other polls, like polling my friends about whether I should dye my hair blue or red?

A: The ‘survey of public opinion’ meaning of “poll” didn’t show up until 1902. And we’d say go blue.

Q: I said I was polling my friends.

A: Ouch.

Q: Seriously though, this hair colour decision could be the most important decision I make this year. You’d think choosing blue seems safer, but there’s something tempting about red.

A: Here’s an idea. Set your hair on fire and start again from scratch.

Q: Oh, sick burn. 

A: It would be.

Q: And the metaphor was not lost on me.

A: Great to hear. Any more election terms you’d like to discuss?

Q: Just one. “Landslide”?

A: Geologically, from 1841. Politically, from the US in 1856 (more widespread by 1888). And Fleetwood Macingly, from 1975.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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