Saturday, November 18, 2006

Thanks to US politics

Once more the flavour of the month is US politics. Over the years, this democracy has given many words to English. Originating in the US, neologisms like ‘democrazy’ that refers to ‘a democracy that has absurd or inequitable characteristics or in which senseless or unjust events occur’ demonstrate the fact that politics does not change much with a change in geographic location.

The two main parties in the US, the Democrats and the Republicans, got their names in 1836 when just two parties were left in the fray: pro-Andrew Jackson and anti-Andrew Jackson. The pro-Jacksonites took up the label of the Democrats, while the anti-Jacksonites that of the Whigs. In the Revolutionary War, ‘Whig’ was used for the person who supported the British cause. The word Whig is of Scottish origin and comes from Whiggamores, the name given to members of the military expedition against the Scottish rebels of 1648 in Edinburgh.

American politics has given English the word ‘gerrymandering’. This word refers to the redrawing of electoral boundaries to favour a particular party. Its origin can be traced to 1812 when the Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry performed some dramatic geographic manipulation in order to preserve the grip of his party on the state assembly. At the comment that one county looked like a salamander, pat came the reply, combining the words ‘Gerry’ and ‘salamander’ “No, it’s a gerrymander!”

Redistricting or reapportionment is the legitimate form of electoral redrawing. The US Supreme Court has ordered that districts be reapportioned after each census to allow for population shifts. Illegitimate techniques like ‘packing and cracking’ are often used to redraw electoral boundaries to favour one political party over another. ‘Packing’ means redrawing a boundary so that more of a party’s supporters are crammed into a district that is already heavily slanted towards that party. ‘Cracking’ means taking a constituency that typically favours a particular party out of a single district and splitting the voters among a number of different districts, thus preventing that constituency from voting en masse to elect their preferred party. These kinds of coinages develop further the universally identical face of politics.