My political lexicon

I am a big fan of both political drama and comedy. At the moment I am following House of Cards, 1992 and Veep. But we mustn’t forget the original House of Cards, The Thick of It, Borgen or Yes Minister to name but a few. Frank Underwood, Selina Mayer, Pietro Bosco, Birgitte Nyborg, Malcolm Tucker and Sir Humphrey Appleby are now perhaps more familiar to me than today’s real politicians. To really appreciate these programmes you need to know the vocabulary. I am also a fan of the language of politics and English and American politics are a rich lexical source. Here is my selection:


Ballot comes from Italian ballotta, the diminutive of balla, meaning a “small ball used in voting” or a “secret vote taken by ballots”. It comes from Venice in the 16th century, where small coloured balls were placed in a container to register a vote-


A filibuster in the United States Senate usually refers to delaying tactics used to prevent a measure from being brought to a vote. This term, imported from the Spanish filibustero, is synonymous with piracy in the Caribbean in the 17TH century. In its political meaning did not come in until the latter half of the 19th century. The rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose. The only way to stop this is if three-fifths of the Senators (usually 60 out of 100 senators) agree to bring the debate a close. The classic method involves speaking for hours. Some practitioners have been known to recite cooking recipes. There is a dark side as this tactic was employed by Southern senators to stymie anti-lynching legislation. U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest filibuster goes to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. The senator from South Carolina spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.


Gerrymandering is the system of redrawing electoral districts that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan advantaged districts. This portmanteau word is a combination of the surname of a Massachusetts governor last name and salamander. In 1812 Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. The contorted districts in the Boston area were said to look like the shape of a salamander, leading to the use by the Boston Gazette in an article on 26 March 1812.

Gerrymandering is often done with the connivance of the Republicans and Democrats. What politicians value more than anything else is having a safe seat. This of course goes against the interests of the electorate.

This type of practice is prevalent n countries where the voting systems are not proportional. We have this kind of debate in the UK about constituency boundaries as demographics change. However, nothing prepared me what goes on across the Atlantic. You have to see it to believe it. Curiously the two are Democrat districts, but both parties get up to these shenanigans. Take a look at the first one, Maryland’s 3rd district:


This is known as the Pinwheel of Death. I checked on Wikipedia which defined a pinwheel as “a simple child’s toy made of a wheel of paper or plastic curls attached at its axle to a stick by a pin. It is designed to spin when blown upon by a person or by the wind”. I would say that a Rorschach test is a better comparison. A local reporter claimed that it took him nine hours to drive from end to end.

My second choice is the Illinois 4th district:

latin earmuffs

In this example the Democrats wanted to pack as many Hispanic voters as possible into Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s redrawn Chicago seat. The northern portion is predominantly Puerto Rican, whereas the southern part has a Mexican majority. The two sections are on opposite sides of the city and are only connected by a section of Interstate 294 to the west.

Hung parliament

This term which describes a situation in which no one party has an overall majority is actually fairly recent going back to the failure of Labour’s Harold Wilson to win an overall majority in the February 1974 election.

The Nasty Party

According to Wikipedia the first person to use the term Nasty Party referring to the Conservatives was actually a Conservative. In a speech in October 2002, Theresa May, then Chairperson of the party argued that:

There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party.” This perception characterised the New Statesman, a British sitcom of the late 1980s and early 1990s which satirised the Conservative government of the time. The star of the show was Rik Mayall as Alan B’Stard. There was also a book a few years ago, Too Nice to be a Tory: It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to by Jo-Anne Nadler. Curiously the word Tory comes from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe meaning outlaw, robber or brigand,

Pork barrel politics

The term pork barrel politics refers to spending which is intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, which could be votes or campaign contributions. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the modern sense of the term from 1873.  One theory is that it originated in a pre-Civil War practice of giving slaves a barrel of salt pork as a reward.  They were then required to compete among themselves to get their share of the largesse. Apparently a barrel of salt pork was a common larder item in 19th century households, and could be used as a measure of the family’s financial well-being. In his 1845 novel The Chainbearer, James Fenimore Cooper wrote: “I hold a family to be in a desperate way, when the mother can see the bottom of the pork barrel.” Classic examples of pork-barrel legislation include Federal appropriations bills for dams, river and harbour improvements, and bridge and highway construction. These projects may not be bad, but when public money is involved, it would be ingenuous to think that purely logical criteria would be applied.

One of my political heroes has to be Robert Carlyle Byrd, a United States Senator from West Virginia for the Democratic Party. After serving as a U.S. Representative from 1953 until 1959, Byrd became the longest-serving U.S. Senator and, at the time of his death, he was the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress. It was in this capacity that Senator Byrd became known as the Prince of Pork because of his undoubted skill in the art of procuring funds for federal public works in his state. There are more than 30 federal projects with Byrd in their names. Wikipedia even has a page, List of places named after Robert Byrd. There are 4 Robert C. Byrd stretches of highway, 2 Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouses, a Robert C. Byrd Bridge, the Robert C. Byrd Lifelong Learning Center, the Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technology Center, the Robert C. Byrd Conference Center (also known as the Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism, the Robert C. Byrd Health and Wellness Center, and the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing. His wife was also in on the act with the Erma Byrd Biomedical Research Center and the Erma Byrd Eastern Panhandle Health Professions Center among others. Luckily Byrd was a modest man:

”It has never been my expectation that any facility be named for me, although I am humbled that some have. It is a deep honour when West Virginians make the kind gesture to name a project for me in appreciation for my efforts in their behalf.”


Psephology is the study of elections and trends in voting. This name comes from the Greek word psephos meaning pebble. The link may not appear immediately obvious, until you discover that the Ancient Greeks used pebbles to cast their votes. As all the pebbles looked pretty much alike, nobody could tell who had voted for whom the principle of secret voting was preserved. Psephology itself, though seems to a much later coinage, perhaps linked to the rise of election coverage on TV in the 1950s.


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