Political phrase of the week: 'On the hustings'

The commonly used term for political campaigning has its origins in the 11th century, when it meant something completely different. 

Mel Evans/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has enjoyed his time on the hustings this campaign season.

On the hustings: An age-old synonym for the campaign trail, often deployed because it sounds more colorful than “campaign trail.”

The origin of “hustings” differs from its current use, points out Howard Richler, a Canadian language columnist and author of the new book “Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit.”

“As early as the 11th century, it was rendered singular as ‘husting,’ which literally means ‘house thing,’ with ‘thing’ referring to a council meeting,” Mr. Richler wrote. “Over time, it referred specifically to the court of law in the Guildhall of London. It was only in the 20th century that it acquired the modern sense of electioneering.”

It remains common in Canada as well as the United Kingdom, where it also came to mean the physical stage on which candidates were nominated and addressed voters. “It sounds a bit onomatopoeic, with the rival candidates standing on a platform and husting angrily at each other,” the BBC noted last year.  

In the United States, its usage peaked in the 1820s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer. But it still surfaces quite a bit. Huffington Post’s Chris Weigant said last month that Bernie Sanders “had a good week on the hustings, pulling in a whopping 27,000 people to a rally in [New York’s] Washington Square Park, and chalking up his first Senate endorsement to boot.” Humorist Garrison Keillor concurred in a column that the independent democratic socialist-turned-Democrat “is having the time of his life on the hustings, a teen idol at last.”

Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat predicted that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), who just dropped out, will run again: “He’s young, he’s indefatigable, and he can claim – and will claim, on the 2020 hustings – that True Conservatism has as yet been left untried.”

And Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told The Baltimore Sun that GOP Gov. Larry Hogan’s failure to advance much of his agenda in the face of Democratic opposition won’t hurt him politically.

“He can still go on the hustings and tell his base he fought the good fight but the evil Democrats did it again,” Mr. Norris said.

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is now out.


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