Looking at Language: A Primer of Political Words

Looking at Language: A Primer of Political Words

Where doublespeak ends and understanding begins. 

By Richard Lederer, Ph.D.


As the joke goes, the etymology of the word politics derives from poly, “many,” and tics, which are blood-sucking parasites. In truth politics issues from the Greek word polities, “city, citizen.” Politics may make strange bedfellows, but, it makes for even stranger, and sometimes colorful, vocabulary.

Americans are in the grip of a feverish, frenetic, fervent, frantic and frenzied presidential campaign that demonstrates why in England people stand for election, but in the United States they run. It’s also a time that demonstrates that although the classical societies of ancient Greece and Rome have vanished, Greek and Roman thought are very much alive in the parlance of politics.

Taking first things first, we’ll start with the word primary, which descends from the Latin primus, “first.” Primary, as a shortening of “primary election,” is first recorded in 1861. In an election we ”pick out” a candidate who we wish to vote for. In Latin e means “out” and lectus “pick or choose.”

Campaign is very much a fighting word. The Latin campus, “field,” is a clue that the first campaigns were conducted on battlefields. A military campaign is a series of operations mounted to achieve a particular wartime objective. A political campaign is an all-out crusade to secure the election of a candidate to office.

When he went to the Forum in Roman times, a candidate for office wore a bleached white toga to symbolize his humility, purity of motive and candor. The original Latin root, candidatus, meant “one who wears white,” from the belief that white was the color of purity and probity. There was wishful thinking even in ancient Roman politics, even though a white-clad Roman candidatus was accompanied by sectatores, followers who helped him get votes by bargaining and bribery. The Latin parent verb candere, “to shine, to glow,” can be recognized in the English words candid, candor, candle and incandescent.

We know that candidates are ambitious; it’s also worth knowing that ambition developed from the Latin ambitionem, “a going about,” from the going about of candidates for office in ancient Rome.

President descends from the Latin praesidio, “preside, sit in front of or protect.” Presidents sit in the seat of government. When we speak of “the ship of state,” we are being more accurate etymologically than we know. The Greek word kybernao meant “to direct a ship.” The Romans borrowed the word as guberno, and ultimately it crossed the English Channel as governor, originally a steersman. That’s why the noun is governor and the adjective gubernatorial.

The original Greek meaning of the word idiot was not nearly as harsh as in our modern sense. Long before the psychologists got hold of the word, the Greeks used idiotes, from the root idios, “private,” as found today in idiom and idiosyncrasy, to designate those who did not hold public office. Because such people possessed no special status or skill, the word idiot gradually fell into disrepute. But modern English hasn’t given up on this word entirely – in particular, when it comes to voting.

The vote is really a “vow” or “wish.” And this is the precise meaning of the Latin votum. People in modern societies who fail to exercise their democratic privilege of voting on election day are sometimes called idiots.

A metaphor (the word originally meant “to carry across” in Greek) is a figure of speech that merges two seemingly different objects or ideas. We usually think of metaphors as figurative devices that only poets create, but in fact, all of us make metaphors during almost every moment of our waking lives. As T. E. Hulme observed, “Prose is a museum, where all the old weapons of poetry are kept.”

Take the political expression “to throw one’s hat in the ring.” The phrase probably derives from the custom of tossing one’s hat into the boxing ring to signal the acceptance of a pugilist’s challenge. Once the hat is thrown, the candidates engage in political infighting and slug it out with their opponents.

Or take the expression “to carry the torch for someone.” During the 19th century, a dedicated follower showed support for a political candidate by carrying a torch in an evening campaign parade. A fellow who carried a torch in such a rally didn’t care who knew that he was wholeheartedly behind his candidate. Later the term was applied to someone publicly (and obsessively) in love.

One more metaphor that was originally literal attaches to bandwagons, high wagons large enough to hold a band of musicians. Early bandwagons were horse-drawn through the streets in order to publicize an upcoming event. Political candidates would ride a bandwagon through a town, and those who wished to show their support would “hop [or climb] on the bandwagon” and ride with the candidate and his blaring band.

Horses and horse racing are dominant animal metaphors that gallop through political life. One of the earliest of equine metaphors is “dark horse.” The figure refers to a political candidate who is nominated unexpectedly, usually as a result of compromise between two factions in a party. American dark horse candidates who became presidents include James Polk in 1844, Franklin Pierce in 1852, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, James Garfield in 1880 and Warren G. Harding in 1920.

Presidents always have running mates. This too is a horse racing term and derives from the practice of one owner or one stable running two horses in a race, the slower one included to pace the star. The pacesetter was known as the star’s running mate. The phrase has been around for more than a century, but its use to define a vice president was coined by, of all non-practitioners of slang, the most scholarly, the most ecclesiastical of U.S. presidents, Woodrow Wilson.

At the Democratic Convention in 1912 the presidential nomination went to Wilson on the 46th ballot after a terrific brawl. Governor Wilson of New Jersey announced that his vice presidential choice would be another governor, Thomas Marshall, adding, “And I feel honored by having him as my running mate.” Wilson’s turn of phrase brought the house down, the only squeak of humor those assembled had ever heard out of Woodrow Wilson. 


Richard Lederer, Ph.D., is the author of more than 30 books about language, history and humor, including his best-selling Anguished English series and his current book, Presidential Trivia. He was Toastmasters Golden Gavel recipient in 2002.

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