A pre-bork, post-Bork?

Mere hours after the news broke that Justice Antony Scalia died over the weekend, the political fight over his sudden vacancy already broke out. Senate Republicans argue the next president should nominate his replacement. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, citing constitutional duties, will submit his pick. Everyone from pundits on cable news to scholars of U.S. history are pointing to various precedents to guide this election-year game-changer.

One U.S. Supreme Court nomination fight getting aired in all this chatter concerns Robert H. Bork, whose legacy may be less jurisprudential than lexical.

Bork

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Robert Bork. Image from Wikimedia Commons

After the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell on June 26, 1987, President Ronald Regan nominated Robert Bork to replace him on the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Democrats notoriously and publicly blitzed Bork’s nomination. Other liberal-leaning organizations further fueled the characterization of the then-appellate judge as an extremist. His video rental records were even leaked (though his viewing habits were quite vanilla). The Senate rejected Bork’s nomination in a 58-42 vote. (The Senate later confirmed Justice Antony Kennedy in a 97-0, after Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination over concerns of past marijuana use).

Thanks to this heated contest over his failed nomination, Bork was borked, eponymously verbed for “to vilify a nominee, especially in the mass media, in order to prevent their appointment to a public office,” if I may paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for this memorable moment in U.S. political slang. Bork can more widely referring to thwarting a person in a similar manner, though it generally stills wears a flag pin, so to speak. This is not be confused with the caricatured interjection, Bork!, of the Muppet Swedish Chef, nor the internet-y slang, borked, meaning “broken.”

William Safire dated the first usage of bork – not long after his very nomination – to The Atlanta -Journal Constitution on August 20, 1987: “Bork’s opponents are in a frenzy. Frenzied mortals amplify some facts and gloss over others. Let’s just hope something enduring results for the justice-to-be, like a new verb: Borked. Dictionaries will say it’s synonymous with ‘maligned’.” Language has indeed memorialized Bork’s last name, though not quite honoring the original intent of this early usage.

Post-Bork, bork had a good deal of currency into the early 1990s but since ebbing, if my ear is any measure. But now, with the Republican-controlled Senate already urging the President not even to nominate Scalia’s successor, we’ll have to see if Bork gets something of a comeuppance: to pre-Bork, perhaps? Then again, blocking a nomination may just backfire – er, bork-fire, shall we say. However it shakes out, the next months in U.S. politics is going to be one cluster-bork, no doubt.

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Candidate

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.

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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.    

Candidate

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.

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Inside the “establishment”

As the candidates run for the US presidency, there’s one word many are running against (and from): establishment. We see the term especially used for the mainstream Republican party, though Bernie Sanders is increasingly positioning himself against a Democratic establishment. What established this word establishment, etymologically speaking?

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I suppose you should put on some good shoes if you want to be left standing in this anti-establishment campaign. “Establishment.” Doodle by me, shoes by Florsheim.

Establishment

The English language first sets up establishment in the late 15th century. Early on, establishment named a “settled arrangement,” particularly a legal one. In the tumultuous wake of the Reformation in the 1600s, the word often appeared in religious contexts, such as the establishment of a church sanctioned by the state. Come the 1700s and 1800s, we see the word referring to the Church Establishment, or simply the Establishment, like the Church of England.

(We can also speak of disestablishing a church. If we support such disestablishment, we are disestablishmentarians, advocating disetablishmentarianism. And if we oppose disetablishmentarianism? Why, we back antidisetablishmentarianism. All of this centers on late 19th-century efforts to disestablish the Church of England as the official state church. The record for antidisetablishmentarianism really just cites it as a very long word and not one with meaningful or widespread use outside of grade-school know-it-alls.)

In the 1900s, establishment’s power widened, with early references to “the dominant social order” cited in the 1920s and 1930s. The textbook citation for the modern establishment, however, comes from journalist Henry Fairlie in 1955. In London’s The Spectator, Fairlie commented:

By the ‘Establishment’ I do not mean only the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.

Later, across the Atlantic, liberal Republicans – associated with elite, East Coast institutions like Wall Street and Harvard, sometimes called Rockefeller Republicans – were disparaged as the “Eastern Establishment” in the 1960s, perhaps anticipating the pejorative currency of the term that surged with the Tea Party in the 2000s.

At the core of establishment is establish, of course. Dated to the late 1300s, the English word has French footing: establir, which variously meant “to set up.” We can take this establir back to Latin, French’s lexical establishment. Latin had stabilīre, “to make stable,” grounded in the same root of English’s own stable: stabilis, “steady,” “secure,” or, for the lack of better gloss, “stable.” And standing tall in stable is the root verb, stāre, “to stand.” This verb, stārealso yields a great many English words, like station and constant. A stable for horses ultimately comes from stabulum, also related to this “standing” stem of stā-

This 2016 race is definitely shifting the political ground, leaving us all wondering – etymology aside – just how stable the establishment will prove to be.

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Why do we “endorse” candidates?

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?

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Did you make it payable to the Mashed Radish? “Endorse.” Doodle by me. 

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.

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