Saturday, December 8, 2001

Elected words

THE political arena has a lingo of its own. Words can often convey more than just a literal meaning. When the tussle was on for power in America, a journalist wrote, "It remains to be seen whether Bush will be gored or Gore will be bushed!" The name of the writer of these words eludes my memory, but one can be forgiven for memory lapses. Bushed in American English means completely exhausted and gored is from the field of bull fighting, it means pierced by the horns of a bull.

A kakistocracy is a government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens. It is made up of the Greek kakistos, meaning worst, and kratos, meaning rule or power. A stalking-horse would be common in such a government, stalking-horse being a relatively new term in politics. A stalking-horse is a decoy, something used to cover up one’s true purpose or, a sham candidate put forward to conceal the candidacy of another or, to divide the Opposition. The word comes from the register of hunting where a horse was often trained to conceal the hunter while stalking a prey.

The Italian connection
November 24, 2001
Words in writing
November 10, 2001
October 27, 2001
The pickings of war
October 13, 2001
American English
September 29, 2001
September 15, 2001
Foreigners, come to stay
September 1, 2001

Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001
Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001
Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001

Similarly, a filibuster was, in Spanish, a freebooter and, in Dutch, a pirate. The buccaneers who infested the West Indies and the Spanish-American coast in the 17th century were called filibusters and freebooters. The word freebooter comes from the Danish vrijbuiter: vrij, meaning free, and buit, meaning booty. Vrijbuiter passed into French as filibuster, then into Spanish as filibustero. In English, filibuster came to mean a mercenary or adventurer engaging in private military action in a foreign country. With politics rapidly becoming war-like, filibuster came to be used both as a noun and a verb. In the context of politics, it came to mean the use of obstructionist tactics like prolonged speech-making for the purpose of delaying legislative action. In the same way, a stem-winder was a self-winding watch earlier; today it denotes a rousing political oration or a stirring orator. In the absence of an exact etymology, it can only be speculated that just as a winding stem winds up a watch, a good oration or orator stirs up a crowd.

The ballot we cast today comes from the Italian ballota or little ball. Ballot, for us, is a sheet of paper we mark and drop in a box on election day, unless we are dealing with electronic voting machines. The ancient Greeks dropped a white ball of stone or metal or shell in a container for the candidate selected and a black one for the one rejected. This also explains the custom of blackballing people, that is ostracising them.


Adding new meanings to words is frequently due to the attempt of language to cope with and express all the growing branches of human knowledge. The Sanskrit mantrin is one familiar with Vedic hymns, a magician or a secret-keeper. The Hindi mantrin is also a minister and secretary. The Sanskrit pradhana is a chief minister or a commander-in-chief while the Hindi pradhana is also president of a body.