In a Word: A Candidate as White as Snow

Our word ‘candidate’ comes directly from political campaigns of ancient Rome, describing not a politician’s candor, but his clothes.

Statue of ancient Roman statesman and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

 

During every election cycle, we watch political candidates try to pass themselves off as being pure as fresh fallen snow while flinging metaphorical mud at their opponents. We don’t fall for it, of course, but etymologically they’re right on the button.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionaries, as a symbol of a spotless record and unstained reputation, a person running for public office in ancient Rome would wear a white toga that had been rubbed with chalk. The person was called a candidatus, a Latin adjective meaning “dressed in a white toga” that was eventually adapted as a noun. Candidatus is derived from the verb candere, “to be bright or white,” which is also the source of words like candle, candor, and incandescent.

When candidate entered the English language in the 17th century, it still referred to a person who was campaigning for government office, but it had already lost the allusions to togas, chalk, and purity. It wasn’t long before candidate became more generalized, and someone could be a candidate for surgery, a doctoral candidate, or a candidate for a kick in the pants.

Political candidates today wear white less often than they did in Roman times, opting instead for navy suits and red power ties — if you can even see their clothes under all that mud.

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