How we came to suffer our franchises

In English, the right to vote itself is sometimes referred to as suffrage. There is a folk etymology on the internet that holds suffrage to be derived from to suffer, in the older sense of 'allow' or 'permit.'

U.S. President Harry S. Truman speaks from a desk in Washington in 1945.

Let’s get back on the stump this week and look at a few more words associated with political campaigning.

A snollygoster sounds like a monster from a folk tale but is actually an unprincipled politician who “will go to any lengths to win public office.” It was originally 19th-century slang from the southern United States, but it was brought to national attention by former President Harry Truman when he called hypocritical politicians “snollygosters” in the 1950s. 

One might argue that snollygosters are possessed by empleomania, “mania for holding public office.” This is a Spanish word that made its appearance in English in the mid-19th century, derived from empleo-, “employment,” and mania, an “excessive desire” or “obsessive need.” Many politicians seem to suffer from this.  

To achieve their dreams, these empleomaniacs need votes, and nowadays they calculate their campaigning based partly on the science of psephology. This word was coined in the 1950s to give a name to “the statistical analysis of trends in voting,” but what psephologists really seem to enjoy is forecasting the results of upcoming elections. Psephology is a combination of psepho- (Greek for “pebble”) and -ology (“the science of”).  This makes sense when you realize that in some ancient Athenian elections votes were cast by putting small stones in a ballot box. Psephology has had a rough couple of years, having failed to predict both “Brexit” and the election of President Trump. 

In English, the right to vote itself is sometimes referred to as suffrage. There is a folk etymology on the internet that holds suffrage to be derived from to suffer, in the older sense of “allow” or “permit,” as when Jesus says “Suffer little children to come unto me,” in the King James Bible. Various groups – non-property-owning white men, African-Americans – were eventually “suffered” to vote, the story goes, and so achieved “suffrage.” Actually, voting has nothing to do with suffering, at least linguistically. (Politically, it may be a different story.) It comes from the Latin word suffragium, which simply means “a vote.”

Franchise is another word for this crucial civic duty. It comes to English from the Old French word for “freedom,” and in the 14th century it was a legal term indicating that a person or municipality was free from certain governmental rules. From there it came to mean the granting of “a special privilege or exclusive right,” which, by the 18th century, included the right to vote in elections. 

Now I’ve finally slaked my psephologomania, my “obsessive interest in political words.” That’s not a word, in the world’s opinion, but it should be. 

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