Mugwumps, Bailiwicks, and Pregnant Chads: The Vocabulary of Politics

Today is Election Day for my neighbours across the Irish Sea (not to mention a day of infamy for Donald Trump as James Comey testifies), and it looks like child’s-drawing-of-a-parent’s-description-of-a-nightmare-about-Margaret-Thatcher Theresa May will win. Not too surprising though. What was surprising for some people though was when Foreign Secretary and rejected-Monty-Python-sketch-character Boris Johnson called Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a mutton-headed mugwump early on in the election. By mugwump, Johnson meant someone who remains aloof or independent from party politics. The term has a long history, originating from a Massachusett Native-American word for war leader. The term was applied to Republican Activists in the 1884 American Presidential Election who supported the Democrat nominee Grover Cleveland. They were rejecting the political corruption of Republican candidate James G. Blaine, and were ironically nicknamed mugwumps to imply that they were sanctimonious in their removal of themselves from party politics. Mugwump is just one of the many interesting words associated with the world of politics and elections, such as:

Bailiwick: often used to refer to a person’s area of interest, this word originally referred to the jurisdiction of a bailiff.

Rotten or Pocket Borough: A term used in British politics before the 1832 Reform Act to refer to a constituency in which a very small number of people, perhaps even one family, could elect a representative. Such boroughs were sought out by unscrupulous politicians seeking an easy way to get elected, particularly if the inhabitants of a rotten borough were susceptible to bribes.

Gerrymandering: the drawing of constitutional boundaries in order to favour certain groups in an election. You can find a simple illustration of the concept here. The practice is named after former Massachusetts Governor (I don’t know why Massachusetts has contributed to political vocabulary) Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 redrew the state senate election districts to favour his own party. Many commented that one of the redrawn districts looked a lot like a mythical salamander, hence the -mander part.  Since then, gerrymandering has occurred again and again. It was quite common in Northern Ireland until the dissolution of the parliament in 1972, in order to discriminate against Catholics. Even today there is a lot of evidence of gerrymandering in the United States, on racial or economic lines.

Filibuster: a long speech designed to obstruct the flow of proceedings in parliament or stifle debate. The term comes from the Dutch vrijbuiter, which referred to pirates in the Caribbean and was translated into many other languages in the 16th and 17th centuries (such as freebooter in English). The term probably came to be used in American politics because the person doing the filibustering is hijacking the normal flow of politics, as pirates were fond of hijacking ships, and generally disrupting people’s lives.

Party Whip: An enforcer in a political party whose role is to ensure party discipline. If a vote is coming up, for example, the Whip will ensure that all members vote along party lines. I genuinely thought, owing to the numerous sex scandals involving Conversative politicians featured in the British tabloid press in the 80s and 90s, that the Whip was a dominatrix hired by the party.

Hanging, Pregnant, and Fat Chads: a chad is the little piece of paper removed when a sheet is punched, like with old computer cards. Most people weren’t aware of this until the 2000 American Presidential Election, and the controversy over the counting of the votes in Florida. The system left many holes not completely punched, resulting in hanging chads, where one of the corners was attached, or pregnant or fat chads, in which all four corners remained intact, despite clear evidence of the card being punched. Such chads were not counted, resulting in a lot of controversy and recounts.


13 thoughts on “Mugwumps, Bailiwicks, and Pregnant Chads: The Vocabulary of Politics

  1. Filibuster has an (il?)legitimate cousin: bunk. Short for bunkum, it was a newbie Congressman’s speechmaking effort to get press at home that went over very poorly in the House as he was quasi-filibustering.

    Liked by 1 person

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