If you’ve lived in the United States since birth, you’ve been inundated with American politics. Talking about elections comes as naturally as breathing, so you might not think twice about the actual words you’re using. But language plays an important role in how any government works, and paying special attention to the vocabulary that describes our system is important. You know what a ballot is, but really, what is a ballot? One of the best ways to understand these terms better is to look at political word origins.
The origin of a word doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on its meaning today, but language matters in politics. The United States bases its entire governmental system on the U.S. Constitution, a 250-year-old document that notoriously contains some weird word choices. Political word origins can have a huge influence on how someone reads and interprets the law, and so they have a huge influence on us today.
12 Political Word Origins
The word “ballot” looks pretty weird if you stare at it long enough. That might be because it is the only one of the political word origins on this list to come from the Italian dialect Venetian, spoken in Venice. “Ballot” derives from one of the most complicated political processes you could possibly think up to elect a chief of state, who is here called the Doge. Let’s try going through this 16th century piece of political history anyway.
First, the old Doge dies. It’s a tragedy, but alas, politics must go on. The members of the Maggior Consiglio — “The Greatest Council,” which represented the people of Venice — need to meet to elect the new one. Then, 30 of the members (who must be more than 30 years old, like an old 30 over 30 list) are selected. These 30 then each draw a pallotte, which was either a silver or a gold ball, which decides whether they’ll make it to the final nine. The pallotte also, as you might have guessed, is the source of the word “ballot.” The nine who remain — let’s call them Committee A — elect a new group of 40 people from the Maggior Consiglio, who also draw ballots to be reduced to a group of 12 that we’ll call Committee B. Committee B elects 25 new people, who have to be approved by Committee A, and these 25 draw ballots to decide the nine members of Committee C. Each member of Committee C picks five names each, resulting in 45 new people, who are reduced (by ballots again!) to 11 people that we’ll call Committee D. Finally, Committee D convenes and decides on 41 electors — Committee E if you’re still with me — who elect the Doge, which is decided by a popular vote. This makes the electoral college system look like a walk in the park, all for the purpose of making corruption nearly impossible.
This Venetian word likely influenced the word “ballot” because it was one of the only previous voting systems to be referenced. But the earliest “ballots” date back to ancient Greece, when people used pieces of broken pottery to decide who would be expelled from Athenian society. The real connection between pallotte and “ballot” is that small balls were used to hold elections among various groups, including secret societies like the Masons (this is also where the phrase “blackballed” comes from). Some of the earliest elections in the United States used whatever people had on hand — like pieces of corn of varying colors — for ballots. Paper ballots made their first appearance in the land that would become the United States during the 17th century, when parishioners were choosing a new pastor for Salem Church.
The word “candidate” arrived in English at some point near the turn of the 17th century, and it meant the same thing it meant today: a person who is seeking some form of office. If you trace the word back far enough, you’ll reach the Proto-Indo-European word kand- meaning “to shine.” What’s the logical connection? In Ancient Rome, a candidatus would wear a white toga for the same reason that white became a color for brides on their wedding day: to show purity. Candidatus literally meant “white-robed” at one point.
The word “caucus” is one of the more confusing American political terms, and fittingly it has one of the more confusing political word origins. It is specifically American, though; the word appeared in the United States in the 1760s as a reference to any private meeting of politicians. Today, it still means the same thing, but it also refers to the voting primary process in four states where people have to show up and form small groups to choose a party candidate.
Where exactly it comes from, no one knows. One theory is that it’s related to the Algonquian word caucauasu, meaning “one who advises,” but this theory has little evidence. Another possibility is that it comes from the Latin caucus, which meant “drinking cup” and was used in the name of the Boston political group called the Caucus Club (because, of course, they drank a bit). There are also a few more far-fetched ideas, like that it might actually be a transformation of the “caulker’s meetings” or even an acronym for six men’s last names.
For most of its history, the word “congress” referred to two groups meeting together to battle. Depending on your level of optimism in the political process, this is pretty apt to describe the U.S. Congress. The word comes from two Latin particles: com, meaning “together,” and gradi, meaning “walk.”
At the start of the French and Indian War in 1754, some people in the loose band of British American Colonies decided they needed to band together. To do so, seven colonies formed the Albany Congress and met to discuss their position in the war. When two decades later the colonies decided to come together again to fight the British, they followed the same idea and created the Continental Congress. The word stuck in American politics and has been adopted by many countries who have formed governments in the past few centuries, particularly in South America.
For being such a loaded political term, democracy is a simple concept: it’s a government that is decided by all of the citizens of a country (either directly or through elected officials). The word comes from the Greek dēmos (“common people”) and kratos (“rule” or “strength”). The United States is in part a democracy, though the people rule less directly because of how the federal and state governments interact. Also, there have historically been some pretty huge caveats about who, exactly, counts as the “common people.”
The founders of the country notoriously didn’t want a government made up of political parties. But too bad for them, because almost immediately after the country started, factions broke out and entrenched a two-party system that has lasted to today. The first two parties were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists believed in a strong national government, whereas the Democratic-Republicans believed that the individual states should have the biggest say in how people live. The Federalists effectively vanished at the start of the 19th century — funny enough, this one-party period of American history was called the Era of Good Feelings — but it only took a few years for the Democratic-Republicans to splinter off into the Democratic Party and the Whig Party, all thanks to the election of 1824.
The fall of the Federalist Party meant that the Democratic-Republicans won the presidency every time. For a few elections that was fine, but in 1824, two candidates from the party stood out: John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. It was a close match, though Jackson won both the popular vote and the Electoral College. But because no one received more than 50 percent of the vote, the election moved to the House of Representatives where the fourth-place finisher (Democratic-Republican Speaker of the House Henry Clay) built a coalition with Adams that handed him the victory. This move angered Jackson’s supporters so much that they split off into their own party, choosing a name that happened to highlight that the candidate who receives the most votes should win — you know, like in a democracy — the Democratic Party.
The word “election” has a long history, even among other political word origins. It can be traced all the way back to a Proto-Indo-European root leg-, meaning “to collect,” which shifted in meaning and pronunciation into the Latin electionem, which means “to choose.” The word became the Old French elecion before making it into English as “election” in the 14th century. But for most of its history, the word simply meant “the act of choosing” in a more general sense. It has some Christian connections, too, because those who were chosen by God were thought to be “elected.” It wasn’t until the 15th century that it took on the meaning we know today.
The word “government” is simply a body that…governs. The word “govern” appears in English in the 13th century, adapted from the French governer. It can be traced back further, originating in Greek with the word kybernan, which was likely first a nautical term referring to steering or piloting a ship.
“Politics” has broad definitions, and trying to define the exact line between what is and isn’t “politics” can be difficult. But like many other political words, it comes to the English language from Greek. It can be traced all the way back to the Greek word polis, meaning “city,” which is the source of the word politikos, meaning “of citizens, pertaining to the state and its administration.” The word also traveled through Latin (politica) and Old French (politique) before making it into English in the singular form politike in the 15th century.
The plural form “politics” likely came into vogue during the 16th century because of a translation of the fourth century philosopher Aristotle’s book Politics. This book set the groundwork for essentially all of the political discourse during the two and a half millennia since it was published. Despite living so long ago, Aristotle was writing about questions of citizenship, governance and education, which are all still hotly debated today.
When the United States first created the position of president, there was no precedent for it. The word itself, though, did exist beforehand. It first appeared in the English language in the 14th century, ultimately deriving from the Old French praesidere, meaning “to act as head.” The word was first used in Middle English to refer to people in charge of any number of organizations, including churches and schools. The head of the Continental Congress was also a president, which is likely part of the reason it was enshrined into the U.S. Constitution.
You might think, based on a certain country’s political party names, that a republic would be the furthest thing from a democracy. Yet the political word origins of the two are pretty similar. “Republic” comes from the Latin res (“matter or entity”) and publicus (“of the people”). In this system, the power rests in the people, generally through elected officials. You can split hairs on what exactly the difference is, but democracies and republics have more in common than not.
After the breakup of the Democratic-Republican party, there were a few attempts to create a new opposing party. The most immediately successful was the Whig Party, which held some power in the United States from 1833 to 1854. But as the issue of slavery became a more pressing issue in the country, many people saw the need for a party that adamantly fought against the enslavement of people. There were a number of smaller groups out there already doing this work, including the Free Soil Party, the Free-Democratic Party and others, but there wasn’t a single national movement by 1852, when Democrat Franklin Pierce won the presidency.
One account says that the name of the Republican Party came from a man named Alvan Earl Bovay, who believed it was time for a new political party to take up the anti-slavery mantle. The story goes that he told his friend Horace Greeley, who happened to be a powerful newspaper publisher, that the party should be named the Republican Party because it had a powerful meaning and could trace its heritage back to the Democratic-Republican Party. Bovay seems to overlook the irony that both political parties would take their name from the same source. In any case, Bovay allegedly suggested the name at a preliminary political meeting for the party in Ripon, Wisconsin, and it caught on.
The Latin word senatus referred to the high council of Rome. It literally meant “council of elders,” and derives from the Latin senex, meaning “old,” which is a root you can also see in words like “senile.” This Latin system of high councils has influenced countless governments over the past centuries. When the United States needed a name for the more powerful branch of U.S. Congress, they selected this Latin word to name the U.S. Senate.
The word “vote” comes from the Latin votum, which meant something closer to “vow” (think of the word “devoted”). In the middle of the 15th century it was a noun that referred to someone’s formal choice for a candidate (or anything else that could be voted on).