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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In a Word: The Luck of the Hapless

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.

In 1967’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” Albert King sang, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” We can all empathize with the sentiment today, but for speakers of Middle English, it was more literal: They really had no luck at all.

That is, they didn’t have the word luck, which comes from a Middle Dutch luc and wasn’t common until the late 15th century, the early days of Modern English. What they did have, though, since around the 13th century, was the word hap, adopted from the Old Norse word happ meaning “good luck, chance.” And although hap is rather uncommon on its own today, it’s the lexical link among a number of other common words. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of them.

See what I did there?

Perhaps was coined by adding the Latinate prefix per- “by” to hap “chance.” This combination of Latin and Norse roots makes perhaps a hybrid word, which historically some language snoots have eschewed. Maybe that’s why Shakespeare chose instead to have Hamlet use a totally Latinate alternative in his famous soliloquy: “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Or maybe he just thought it sounded better.

We can call someone who is unlucky or unfortunate hapless — literally “without luck.” The opposite of hapless isn’t hapful but, at least originally, something more recognizable: happy. In most European languages, the modern word that means “happy” began as a word meaning “lucky,” and Modern English is no different.

(Tangent: Gesælig was the Old English word for “happy,” but it underwent rapid and varying development and wound up as our modern silly. This left a hole in the language that was filled by both happy and glad. A deep dive into the tortuous history of silly is a topic for a later column.)

The bad luck that follows the hapless can often lead to an unfortunate event — a mishap, which relies on the prefix mis-, meaning “bad.” And it’s no coincidence that a mishap happens. The verb happen was coined by adding the –en suffix. It originally indicated that something “occurred by chance,” but by the end of the 14th century it just meant “to occur.”

The evolution of English can, at times, seem rather haphazard — that is, characterized by randomness or disorganization, from hap + hazard “risk,” which stems from a French dice game. But sometimes the patterns and connections make perfect sense are right there in front of us. We just have to notice them.

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