Politics and government are all about words. In politics, words are often created to define and describe new situations. Words are also redefined by politicians. Below the squiggle, the origins of some of the words related to politics and government are described.
The English word “politics” came into the language from the Old French “politique” which, in turn, came from the Latin “polīticus.” The Latin came from the Greek “tà polītiká” which referred to “affairs of state.” This is related to “pólis” which means “city, or state.” The English words “police” and “policy” are based on the Greek “pólis.”
“Boondoggle” used in the political sense first became popular in 1935 during an investigation of New Deal relief programs in New York City. As an example of wastefulness, Mr. Robert Marshall testified that he had gone so far as to teach “boon doggles” (this is the way the New York Times spelled it in their news story.)
A decade earlier, “boondoggle” had come into American English via the Boy Scouts of America. On rainy days when there was nothing else to do, the Scoutmasters would have the boys braid leather lanyards for holding keys, whistles, etc. around their necks. This was a mindless task and among the Scouts “boondoggle” combined the sense of “gadget” and “make-work.” In 1929, the word became popular among the Scouts at their International Jamboree. Today, many dictionaries credit Scoutmaster Robert H. Link as the inventor of the “boondoggle.”
While there have been lots of attempts at associating the origins of the concept of the “dark horse” with American mythology, it actually started as British slang as was associated with horse racing. The first use of “dark house” as a way of describing an American political candidate was James K. Polk who came out of nowhere to win the Democratic presidential nomination on the ninth ballot in 1844. The term was not actually applied to him at that time, but was used to describe him in a history published in 1891. Following this, “dark horse” became a common political expression.
James K. Polk is shown above.
In English the preface “by” can have the meaning “secondary” as in “byway. However, “bylaw” does not mean “secondary law” as “by” has a different origin. “By” as in “bylaw” comes into English from the Old Norse where it referred to a town or village. Thus the early meaning of “bylaw”, as first recorded in 1283, referred to “a body of customs of a village or manor.”
While there are many people today who feel that the word “ignoramus” is synonymous with Republican and/or conservative, it actually comes from the Latin verb “ignōrāre” which means “to have no knowledge, to ignore.” In the sixteenth century, “ignoramus” (the first person plural of “ignōrāre” which means “we have no knowledge”) came to be used as a legal term. When members of a grand jury refused to approve an indictment because there was not enough evidence to go to trial, they would report “ignoramus.”
The present meaning of “ignoramus” meaning “an ignorant person” can be traced to a play by George Ruggle that was produced in 1615. Ignoramus was the name of its lead character, a lawyer. The play satirized attorneys as ignorant and arrogant. By 1641, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ignoramus” had entered the English language not as a legal term but as a description of ignorant people.
“Mugwump” came into political popularity during the nineteenth century—during the Presidential campaign of 1884, to be exact—as a way of referring to a politician who sat on the fence with regard to certain issues. According to the concept of the time, the politician was sitting with his mug on one side of the fence and his wump on the other. The term was used to describe Republicans who refused to support the Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine and instead supported Grover Cleveland, a Democrat.
James G. Blaine is shown above.
In politics, the term “mugwump” was promoted and popularized by Charles Anderson Dana, the editor of the New York Sun. Noteworthy mugwumps included Charles William Eliot (the President of Harvard University), Horace White (editor of the Chicago Tribune), and Mark Twain.
In actuality, “mugwump” is an old Native American term that has nothing to do with “mugs,” “wumps,” or American politics. It was an Algonquian term used for referring to a leader and it entered English in 1663 when John Eliot used it as a translation of “duke.”
The English word “candidate” comes from the Latin “candidātus” which means “a person standing for office” which is based on the Latin word “candidus” which means “white.” In Rome, the candidates wore a bleached white toga as a symbol of political purity. “Candidate” came into English during the seventeenth century from French.
Origins of English: