Democracy, the people, and their things

A look at the metaphors behind the names of parliaments

Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik/Reuters
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (front), Chairwoman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko (l.), Russian State Duma speaker Sergey Naryshkin (center) and Moscow's Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (r.) attend a United Russia party congress in Moscow, Russia.

With presidential contests thick around us here in the United States, how about a little political counterprogramming? Let’s consider parliaments – and the metaphors behind their names.

A friend describing her prospective trip to Iceland recently mentioned her plan to visit the Althing, famous as “the world’s oldest parliament.” But just a few days before, I’d run across another claimant to this title. An article about efforts to launch “the first large-scale public trials of fully autonomous vehicles” on the Isle of Man mentioned the island’s having “the oldest continuous parliament in the world, dating back more than 1,000 years.”

Hmm, there’s an asterisk in here somewhere, I thought.

Iceland’s Althing goes back to 930, but went on hiatus for 45 years. The Manx (as inhabitants of the Isle of Man are known) mind the gap, and cling to their own distinction as having the “oldest continuously sitting” parliament.” Nitpickers, though, on the other side, may argue the “oldest parliament” distinction is more meaningful when it’s the legislature of an actual country, however small.

The names of the world’s legislatures embody a range of underlying metaphors. Parliament, from the French parler, is a place where people speak. Congress is rooted in Latin words meaning “coming together,” which would appear to be some implicit argument for crossing the aisle to make a deal. 

The State Duma is the lower house of Russia’s legislature. Wikipedia confirms my understanding that duma derives from a Russian verb meaning to think or consider. But Merriam-Webster calls the word “probably of Germanic origin” and connects it to the English doom, as in “day of judgment.” Not a good sign for Russian democracy.

Here’s another one: The Japanese diet is heavy on sushi and rice but the National Diet of Japan is full of politicians. Diet in both the food and the civic sense derive ultimately from a Greek word meaning “way of life” or “regimen,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary

Rivals though the Icelandic Althing and the Manx Tynwald may be, their names share a common etymological root. And that root is thing.

Thing (originally spelled with a thorn, that ancient letter that looks like a mash-up of lowercase “p” and “b”) was an Old English word meaning “meeting, assembly, council, discussion,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary

That word had what linguists call cognates in Old Norse and Icelandic, as well as other languages. The root shows up in Folktinget, the Danish Parliament, for instance – and in the “Tyn” of Tynwald is this same root. 

In English thing evolved from meaning an assembly to meaning the matters being deliberated by an assembly. From there, thing evolved from “legal matter” to “material object.” 

One might fancifully describe the Althing, Folketinget, and other assemblies of the people as places where “all things” are considered, and be almost right. Too often, though, a cynic might point out, they are the places where politicians try to be all things to all people.

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