So many words to talk about elections

There are so many wonderful campaign words, I feel as if I could go on forever – just like campaign season.

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Gilbert Stuart, 'Portrait of George Washington'

It’s campaign season again. Actually when is it not campaign season? Candidates, many of them political novices, are already “hit[ting] the hustings,” the Monitor reported in May. 

Hustings has meant many things over its thousand-year career: It has referred to a deliberative assembly in the Anglo-Saxon era, to a medieval London court, then to the platform upon which British candidates for Parliament would stand and address potential voters. 

American politicians, in contrast, were more informal and speechified wherever, even on tree stumps – hence the phrase on the stump. George Washington was apparently the first person to give a stump speech. A satirical ballad from 1775 describes how “Upon a stump, he placed himself,... and ... Proclaimed great Liberty.”  

On the hustings and on the stump mean the same thing today: giving speeches and trying to get votes. 

Perhaps because hustings were fairly high off the ground, British politicians today tend to stand for election, while Americans, moving from stump to stump, run for office. Since the 19th century, American pols have been barnstorming, making lightning-fast stops around the country – stumping on steroids.  

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic organize campaigns, derived from the French campagne (“countryside”). The word was first used in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to indicate the time an army was fighting “in the field.” By the 19th century, campaign was used to describe efforts in support of causes (“the campaign for women’s suffrage”) and politicians’ attempts to get elected. 

Candidate and candid (“truthful, frank”) share the same root, which is easy to see orthographically but perhaps harder to believe. Both come from the Latin word for white, candidus, because Roman candidates wore white togas.  

Canvass, though, must be the campaign word with the strangest etymology. Canvassing generally involves going door to door to gauge or solicit support for a candidate, but it comes from cannabis, the Latin word for, well, cannabis. Romans used the plant in various medicines and made rope and cloth (canvas) from its fibers. The English verb to canvass originally meant “to toss in a canvas sheet, as a sport or punishment,” then, physically, “to shake and shatter thoroughly ... to beat.”  

During the Renaissance, “I will canvass you” was thus not a request for your opinion, but a promise to thrash you. Eventually the word was used more figuratively – to canvass an issue was to break it apart, scrutinize, and talk through it. 

There are so many wonderful campaign words, I feel as if I could go on forever – just like campaign season.

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