Some things just don’t change. Today’s presidential candidates would fit right into Ancient Rome – both in name and action. See, the etymology of candidate turns out to be quite illuminating.

Have trouble tying a Double Windsor? Try a toga. “Cicero Denounces Cataline,” fresco,  Cesare Maccari, 1882-1888. Image from Wikimedia Commons and inspired by Mary Beard’s SPQR.    


The Oxford English Dictionary first cites candidate in 1609, where it appears in the second edition of Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall: “Candidate, a suiter for, or one elect for a place.”

Scholars consider Cawdrey’s work, a list of “hard words” borrowed into English, especially from Latin and Greek, the first English-language dictionary. English previously had bilingual dictionaries (e.g., Latin-English); general-purpose dictionaries, famously Samuel Johnson’s in the 18th century, followed later.

Now, with candidate, English is wearing a Latin word, candidātus,  which literally means “wearing white.” See, in ancient Rome, a candidate – called a candidātus – wore a white toga. In her engrossing new work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard explains:

Everyday Roman clothing – tunics, cloaks, and even occasionally trousers – was much more varied and colourful…Togas, however, were the formal, national dress: Romans could define themselves as the gens togata, ‘the race that wears the toga’, while some contemporary outsiders occasionally laughed at this strange, cumbersome garment. And togas were white, with the addition of a purple border for anyone who held public office. In fact, the modern word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means ‘whitened’ and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns, to impress voters. In a world where status needed to be on show, the niceties of dress went even further: there was a also a broad purple stripe on senators’ tunics, worn beneath the toga, and a slightly narrower one if you were the next rank down in Roman society, an ‘equestrian’ or ‘knight’, and special shoes for both ranks.

And you thought flag pins were ostentatious.

Many argue that the whiteness of the robes emphasize the candidates’ purity of character, but I think it’s more about the optics. Some thing just don’t change.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary sheds yet more light on candidātus:

Officially named petitor (his rivals were therefore styled competitores), he was called candidatus because he wore a whitened toga when greeting electors in the forum. A slave (nomenclator) reminded him of the names of the electors, and he had a crowd of partisans (sectatores) from the plebs including his own freedman and other clients, whose numbers were taken as an index of his likely success…In the late republic these activities frequently began a full year before the election…

Some things really just don’t change. Except for “he” and “his,” fortunately.

Underneath candidate’s folds

The root verb behind candidātus is candere, “to be shining white.” (With the exception of Ben Carson, you might say this verb also describes the field of candidates quite well.) The verb also produced candidus, which variously meant “white,” “bright,” “clear,” “happy,” and, anticipating English’s own candid, “frank.”

Candid is also cited in English in the early  1600s, its modern sense of “straight-forward” emerging by the end of the century. This connection between candidate and candid, of course, creates for some delicious ironies on the campaign trail. Candid camera comes surprisingly early, recorded in 1929.

Other cognates of candidate include: candlecandelabra, and chandelierincandescentincendiary, and incense. Candere could also mean “to burn white,” ultimately explaining its connection to incense and incendiary – which we can apply to that one candidate who’s taken the traditional toga…and set it on fire.

m ∫ r ∫


4 thoughts on “Candidate

  1. Interesting post! I just feel like pointing out, though, that a better translation of “gens” would be “people”. This is still linked to many Latin languages like Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese… where “people” translates into “gente”, “gens”…
    By using the word race, instead, we are actually transferring nowadays (false) scientific beliefs into a far away past, where genes and genetics were not invented/discovered yet.
    For this reason “candidate” means “person” wearing a white toga.
    I hope this contribute positively to the subject!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make an important point.

      I’m think the author’s translation was emphasizing “race” in an early tribal sense, not the false genetic sense that you rightfully point out come later. Nevertheless, it’s very important we are sensitive to these matters, even in Latin translations. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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