Running up to the election, it’s all about the political polls. On election day, it’s about who shows up to the polls. Leaving the polls, we take exit polls. The following morning, we analyze the polls. All these polls are enough to make us lose our…polls?

"Tadpole." Doodle by me.
“Tadpole.” Doodle by me.


In Old English, a poll referred to the head, especially the top of the head of persons or animals where hair grows. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this usage as early as 1300, although it does note, with a terrifying ambiguity, a reference to an obscure “kind of penal instrument of restraint.”

Over the ensuing decades, the sense of poll was transferred from the “top of the head” to the whole person, particularly as would be tallied in, say, a headcount–a count “by poll.” In 1625, the OED attests poll as the “counting of voters” for voice votes or by show of hands. We witness further transference to the “result of voting” with a citation in the New York Weekly Journal in October, 1736:

The Polls were so near, that a Scrutiny was demanded and had.

Later in the century, polls began to signify where votes were cast. It’s not until 1902 that polls named opinion surveys.

Surveying the “Poll”

So, poll-sick or poll-mad by election day? Blame the Dutch.

Our best guest as the origin of poll is evidenced by the Middle Dutch pol, meaning “top” or “summit,” with other Germanic cognates like Middle Low German’s pollfor the “top” of plants. English may have borrowed the word or it may have developed in line, perhaps like the Swedish pull or Danish puld for “crown of the head,” as Skeat provides.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds that poll in Old English lives on in place names, possibly meaning “hill,” and thus the original may have been “hill.”

Ernest Klein and Eric Partridge hold out for a connection to the Latin bulla, “bubble,” connected to the rather prolific (and likely imitative) Proto-Indo-European roots for “to swell,” like *bhel-, which we saw before in Super Bowl and fool.


We count some “heads” in a few other surprising places. The poleax is a weapon with an ax on its poll, or head, though the unrelated pole is certainly an influence. Heads roll in a pollard, a tree whose tops have been pruned. Earlier, the word referred to deers that have cast their antlers, the OED notes.

Poll was also a verb, as pollard may have suggested, in case you recognize polled. Originally, it referred to cutting off hair; later, heads.

But what really turns my head is tadpole. This word is hatched from toad and poll, a “toad-head,” due to its top-heavy development. In some regions, it is known, delightfully enough, as a pollywog, joining that same poll with wiggle.

The connection couldn’t be better: The 2016 campaign for US President kicks off today, for all intents and purposes, and we will all soon squirm with polls like so many tadpoles in yet another political life cycle.

m ∫ r ∫


8 thoughts on “poll

  1. Reblogged this on EarlGrey&Ink and commented:
    Awesome illustrations and interesting post! Origin of Words: check it out.. “Later in the century, polls began to signify where votes were cast. It’s not until 1902 that polls named opinion surveys.”


  2. Fascinating; I love any article that manages to use pollywog in sentence. And don’t forget polled Herefords, which brings to mind a herd of disadvantaged bulls, pertinent to the subject at hand, I think. :o)


  3. Like the subtle difference between ‘parquetry’ and ‘marquetry’ I always get ‘pollarding’ and ‘coppicing’ confused so maybe your blog post will finally help fix the meaning into my brain that the ‘poll-‘ in pollard refers to the ‘head’ of the tree?
    I did a search through the dictionary to see if there were any interesting ‘poll’ related words I could find like:

    dodipoll – obsolete n. a stupid person; a fool, a blockhead. (Perhaps from Middle English dodden to cut off, to shear, and first applied to shaven-polled priests.)
    rantipole – verb & noun, an unruly, rude young person. (ranty + poll “head”)
    niddipoll – obsolete adj. foolish, silly. (niddy +‎ poll “head”)
    redpoll – Any of the various finches in the genus Carduelis, which have characteristic red markings on their heads.
    Senepol – An admixed cow breed between a European taurina (Red Poll) and a zebu.

    There’s words in the Scandinavian languages with comparable meanings to the various English ‘poll’ definitions such as Old Norse: kolla (“to hit on the head, harm”). Norwegian: kylla (“to poll”) and Icelandic: kollur 1. a rounded protrusion, such as a rounded mountaintop, or a tussock. 2. crown (topmost part of the head), or the whole head by extension. 3. a hornless male animal (bull, ram) as well as a stool, backless chair.

    I was intrigued probably more than is healthy to about the reference to the obscure “kind of penal instrument of restraint” you mentioned from The Oxford English Dictionary. So I looked up the citation from The Law of the Penitent:

    “Mistlíce þreála gebyriaþ for synnum, bendas oððe dyntas oððe pollupas oððe carcernþýstra, lobban oððe bælcan.” (various punishments are proper for sins, bonds or blows, ‘pollup’, prison darkness, spiders, fetters.)

    The Anglo-Saxon dictionary glosses ‘pollup’ vaguely as a scourge or whip (?) but I don’t see how that definitions ties in with ‘restraint’ or any notions of ‘poll’ for head? I was left wondering whether a pollup was actually some form of ‘catchpole’ such as the tool with a noose at the end of a pole still used today by animal control officials to ensnare uncontrolled aggressive dogs etc.?


    1. I, too, came across dodipoll, though as “dotypolle,” where it was argued that the term gave us “dotty,” as in “silly.” “Dodipoll,” “rantipole,” and “niddipoll” all suggest the word was productive in the way “head” itself has been to characterize, well, fools: “blockhead,” etc.

      Yes, the final origin of “pollup” is indeed a tricky one. The OED suggests the first element, of course, is “poll” and the second related to “loop” or “lop.”

      Greatly enjoyed your additional research. Thanks!


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