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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.”

Dark Horse:

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 Polk

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 Blaine

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:

American Indian Words in English

Working Words


Debunking Congress

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 04:21 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Pink Clubhouse.

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Comment Preferences

  •  My high school's football team was named the Dukes (6+ / 0-)

    and trust me, we would have much preferred Mugwumps.  ;-)  Great diary!

    "There's nothing in the dark that's not there when the lights are on" ~ Rod Serling

    by jwinIL14 on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 04:49:52 PM PST

  •  Welcome to the University of Objibwa. (7+ / 0-)

    The courses at U of O are stimulating, enlightening and are often on subjects you might not have considered interesting - until you take them.

    Ojibwa, the esteemed dean/professor of U of O shows a range of subject matter and intellect that offers an education on subject matter that broadens the mind and sharpens the wit.

  •  Here's another relevant phrase (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ojibwa, Angie in WA State

    The Know Nothing Party, who I'd have to describe as ignoramuses.

    The Know Nothing was a movement by the nativist American political faction of the 1850s, characterized by political xenophobia, anti-Catholic sentiment, and occasional bouts of violence against the groups the nativists targeted. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant males of British American lineage. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and entirely Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery.

    Curiously, they grew out of the "American Republican Party" and the "Native American Party."

    But the angle said to them, "Do not be Alfred. A sailor has been born to you"

    by Dbug on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:19:08 PM PST

  •  Evolution and Language (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Another way of thinking about the phenomenon of language is that it is a pavement that we walk on, a word road, that we built over years and millennia, going back to the beginning.  Our deepest thoughts are beyond the road, in a region of undefined feelings and intuitions, that we might struggle to bring to speech, or be content not to.  

    Each pebble and grain of this pavement is an agreement that has been tested and retested many times as each generation passes this on.  In the beginning was the need to survive, to figure out how to describe where the game was and how to hunt it successfully.  Over the campfire as the meat was cooked and happiness ensued, tales were told of great leaps that won the day and great follies to laugh at.  

    This probably describes the very beginning which was perhaps a couple of hundred thousand years ago, in Africa.
    That's the current best estimate as to when Cro Magnon man began.  

    We developed this ability over a great amount of time in order to become a social culture in which every one of us benefits from an ability to share minds with others.  

    Politics is a social skill that, like language, has been developing along with the growing size of the population over the course of things.

    We live in unprecedented times.  For the past sixty years or so we have had TV that can bring in live and remote events and people from across the US and the world.  But that is only sixty years (The first coast to coast live transmission was in 1952).  The internet was born mere minutes ago in the grand scheme of things.

    Generations are probably needed to develop language use and the purposes we develop in our minds for it, that we really need when there are  7 billion people out there, with more on the way.  

    I think a lot of the stress in our current politics is the result of a lag time in development.  The entire system for dealing with political decisions moves too slow.  This is because it is based on the need to have majorities for well enough defined definitions and agreements about issues that something can be brought to a vote.  By the time problems are agreed on by enough people and solutions are brought forward, a lot of time can pass.  

    Given the complexities that are increasingly difficult on a global scale, and the nature of many issues, the system will have to speed up somehow.  Perhaps our ability to use language will improve so that the perceptions about the need to move will also improve.  

    hope that the idiots who have no constructive and creative solutions but only look to tear down will not win the day.

    by Stuart Heady on Sun Feb 05, 2012 at 09:39:18 AM PST

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