Here are election-related terms you need to know

The word “election” comes from the Latin meaning “to choose; to select from among a number of possibilities”

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Fri 24 Nov 2023, 10:10 PM

“Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” So said Abraham Lincoln, in one of the more colourful comments made on elections. Indian readers of this column are currently inundated with talk of five state elections in their homeland and the prospect of national elections soon after. The election season arrives in a deluge of political advertisements and news articles inundated with terms related to voting. Here are some of them.

The word “election” comes from the Latin meaning “to choose; to select from among a number of possibilities”. “Electorate”, the term for those eligible to vote, was first used in 1879 for a group of individuals who possess the right to participate in an electoral process. A “candidate” or “nominee” is an individual actively seeking a political position. The word “candidate” is derived from the Latin word “candidatus”, meaning “clothed in white”: it was the custom in Rome for persons to wear a white toga when standing for election to the Senate. To “nominate” someone is to designate or choose a person as a potential candidate for a public office. (Nomination, of course, does not guarantee victory in the election, unless the preferences of the electorate are known in advance).

A “campaign” seeks to place a candidate in office. In the past, military forces often spent the winter in their encampments and ventured into the open field during the summer months to engage in battles. Over time, this concept evolved into a broader interpretation denoting “continued or sustained aggressive operations for the accomplishment of some purpose”. That purpose is usually spelled out in a “manifesto”, which comes from Italian. Originally, “manifesto” merely meant “proof” and gradually evolved to the present meaning of “a public statement of political objectives or intentions, especially immediately before an election.”

Next comes voting. The “poll” in which one casts one’s vote is derived from an old Germanic word meaning “head”, since from the late sixteenth century candidates began to demand a “head count” of those voting. A “booth” is a temporary table, tent, or area. A voting booth is a confined space, typically enclosed by partitions or curtains on three sides, within a polling location, where you cast your vote secretly. The “ballot” is a record containing the available options in an electoral event. When a person seeks a political position, their initial objective is to secure a place on the ballot. The “ballot” comes to us from the Italian word “balotta” for a little ball, since such balls were used for secret voting, by placing them in the appropriate urn or box. The meaning now encompasses tools utilized for recording votes, from early forms like clay or paper to modern digital interfaces. Regardless of the medium, any instrument that presents the candidate choices and permits voting can be termed a “ballot”. Of course, you can always “abstain” or refrain from casting a vote. The term’s origins can be traced back to 14th century French.

A “recount” typically signifies the process of tallying votes for the second, third, or subsequent time, often conducted when an election is closely contested. The term “count” itself has its origins in the old French word “conter”, which conveys the idea of “summing up” or “adding together”. The earliest recorded use of the noun “recount” can be traced back to 12th-century Middle English. Once elected, a victor is accountable to his “constituents”. The word just denotes a component or element of a larger entity, like the constituent parts of a machine, deriving from the Latin term “constituentem”, meaning “to compose”, constituting a part within a greater whole. In political contexts, “constituents” are the people politicians have been elected to represent.

“Suffrage” refers to the entitlement to participate in public elections by casting a vote. “Universal suffrage” signifies that every eligible individual is granted the privilege to vote, regardless of gender, race, education or income levels. “Suffrage” and “suffering” are like distant cousins—they’re not exactly related, but if an unsuitable candidate is elected, suffering is guaranteed!

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