politics
n. The practice of responding to conflict with dialogue.
n. Set of policies relating to governmental and legal matters.

Gore Vidal once famously quipped that “‘Politics’ is made up of two words, ‘poli,’ which is Greek for ‘many,’ and ‘tics,’ which are blood-sucking insects”, and that’s perhaps one of the nicer things said about the practice and its practitioners. It seems as though politics has always been reviled, even back to the earliest statesmen.

You’ll notice that I wrote “politics has” instead of “politics have“; politics, despite the terminal s, is a singular noun, though popular usage has effaced that tradition somewhat. You still hear this form in the phrase “All politics is local”. Another interesting characteristic of the word is that the noun was formed from the adjective (often it’s the other way around) politic in the 16th century. The adjective came from the French politique and the Latin politicus, which simply referred to civil or state matters. The Latin itself was modeled from the Greek politikos (πολιτικά), which, despite Vidal’s musings, actually came from the word polis, or “city”. This Greek root can be traced all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European *p(o)lH-, which indicated an enclosed spaced on high ground. This same root also gives is policy via a slightly different lineage, and from which our modern police split off in the 16th century.

The world of politics has given birth to a whole host of new words and phrases, especially the latter. Many of them are borrowings from the Latin/Greek traditions just like our judicial system: Congress talks about a quorum, for instance, which is a direct borrowing from the Latin that refers to the minimum number of representatives necessary to effect a vote.

But there are other words with slightly less obvious origins. Our modern “mayor” comes from the Old French maire of the same meaning. Ultimately, the term is derived from the Latin major, related to magnus, which gives us our modern magnum both in guns and in prophylactics.

Senator comes via French from the Latin senator, itself from senex, or “very old man”, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that most senates have been historically comprised of old white men. Not surprisingly, this same root (from the PIE *sen-, or “old”) gives us the word “senile” and “senior” as well.

Along those same lines, the less recognizable “alderman” comes from Old English aldormonn, the West Saxon ealdormann, a composite of ealder (patriarch) and mann (man). The the W.S. suffix is a cognate of our modern “elder”, and so once again the word literally means an old man, a fixture of the authority-by-seniority that marked that era.

There are far too many terms to cover them all, but they’re all interesting reading. Take “governor”, for instance, which is a 14th-century absorption from the Latin gubernatorem (director or ruler, though originally it referred to a pilot or steersman). This origin is why we talk about electing a governor during a gubernatorial race; the mutation of /b/ into /v/ was one of the many changes that marked the transition from Vulgar Latin’s diaspora into various and sundry Romance languages. That original Latin, by the way, is from the Greek kubernētikos (κυβερνητικός), which is cool for three reasons.

  1. The shift from the initial k to g, according to Doug Harper, probably happened by influence from Etruscan on Greek, which is an explanation I hear for most strange things happening in Greek.
  2. The Greek kubernētikos is what gives us our modern cybernetics and therefore cyborg.
  3. The Governor of California is most famous for playing a cyborg know as a Terminator.

Awesome.

§5928 · September 15, 2010 · Tags: , , ·

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