Sarah Palin made news this week with her endorsement of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. Her endorsement raised a number of questions, we could say. Not the least of which, most certainly, is the etymological one. Why’s it called endorse?
We endorse candidates because we endorse checks, essentially. Money indeed plays an obscene role in politics, but I’m just talking about the word’s history here.
By the late 1300s, endorse meant “to write on the back of something,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, particularly a financial document like a bill or a check. When we endorse a check, we sign our names on the back of it. It’s an act of verification, of vouching. Hence the metaphorical endorsement, cited by the mid 1800s. In the early 1900s, the word further shifted towards a more general sense of “to declare approval” (OED).
Today, political figures, celebrities, organizations, and newspapers, especially, make endorsements of candidates. I wasn’t able to track down exactly when newspapers started doing so, but The New York Times first endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860:
A Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, familiarly known as “Old Abe,” age 51, height six feet seven, by profession Rail-Splitter, is to be our next president. The thing seems pretty sure.
“Back” to its roots
Endorse was originally endosse in Middle English. The word was loaned from the French endosser and, ultimately, from that great lexical lender, Latin. Now, medieval Latin had indorsāre. Much like the early endorse, this verb was used for writing commentary on the back of legal documents – the Microsoft Word “Track Changes” of the day, I suppose. In the 1500s, English shaped endosse into indorse and endorse so the word conformed to its Latin roots. The latter form eventually prevailed.
Latin’s indorsāre bears two parts: in-, here signifying “on,” and dorsum, “back.” Some scholars have attempted to root Latin’s dorsum in an earlier form that fuses de- and versum, “turned away from,” but most don’t back this up.
Though the ultimate origin of dorsum remains unknown, it has its descendants. A dorsal fin is on the back of a dolphin, say. From French’s dos (French fashioned dorsum as dos), a dossier can amass quite a number of documents, whose bulge can resemble a back when so bundled, apparently. And when you dance the do-si-do, you maneuver “back-to-back,” such is the meaning of French’s dos-à-dos that originated this term – and the delicious Girl Scout cookie, which is something I think we can all endorse.