In a Word: Where Your Ballot Comes From

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.

Voting is heavily on the minds of Americans these days. The general message is the same from all sides: Get out and cast your ballot! But have you ever wondered why it’s called a ballot?

Centuries ago, when a secret vote needed to be taken, Italian organizations wouldn’t use what we think of today as paper ballots. Instead, using a system popularized in Venice, they would vote using small colored balls. Ball in Italian is palla, but as these voting-globes were particularly tiny, the diminutive form pallotte was employed to describe these balls.

By the 1540s, this form of vote-casting had entered English politics, and it brought the word ballot with it, still referring to a small ball used in voting. By 1776 — a particularly noteworthy year in the history of voting — we English speakers had largely set aside ballot’s spherical origins while keeping its link to vote-casting; the paper ballot had been born.

Seeing that ballot derives from an Italian word, you might surmise that it’s ultimately Latin in origin, but that’s not the case here. Palla was borrowed into Italian long ago from a Germanic source, tracing at least to the Old Norse bollr. Latin had other names for such spheres, like globus (the source of our globe), pila (whence pill), and the word from which we derive sphere itself — sphaera, which is an earlier borrowing of the Greek sphaira.

Speaking of ancient Greeks, they voted in a way similar to the Venetians, but they didn’t have any specially made balls for the purpose. Instead, they voted with pebbles. In Greek, the word for “pebbles” is psephos, which is why, today, the study of voting and elections is called psephology.

Plenty of amateur psephologists will be speaking out in the coming months, but you should always remember that their theories and opinions are just that. The only things that decide the outcome of an election are those ballots.


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