Word Histories

candidate: For obvious reasons the usage in print of the word candidate reaches a quadrennial high this month. The origins of the word lie in ancient Rome. A Roman officeseeker paraded about in a toga whose whiteness was intensified by rubbing chalk into it, the color being symbolic of the unsullied integrity of the wearer. The Latin candidatus, meaning “clothed in white,” from Candidus (white), came to refer to the person seeking office. In the seventeenth century English adopted it as candidate. By then it had lost the overtones of the color symbolism—fairness, forthrightness, honesty — which are still implicit in the related terms candor and candid.

Because the white-clad candidate went about soliciting votes in public, the Latin noun ambitio, from the verb ambio, “to go about,” developed the extended meaning “going about to canvass for votes.” Inevitably such vote-seeking became a blatant effort to curry favor and soon gave the noun a third, broader sense: “eager desire for advancement, rank, or power.” It is this sense that English adopted when ambition and the adjective ambitious, through French, entered the language in the fourteenth century. Today a candidate is expected to have ambition, or he would not be a candidate at all. But in early usage ambition was akin to the pride that goeth before a fall: “Cromwel, I charge thee, fling away Ambition, By that sinne fell the Angels” (Henry VIII).

broker: There was a lot of talk earlier this year about the possibility of a brokered Democratic convention. The first brokers, in the fourteenth century, were tapsters or tavern keepers. At root is the Old French verb brokier or broquier, which meant “to broach or tap (a cask of wine),” and which is also the root for the English verb broach, “to pierce; to tap (a cask).” A brokour, or broker, then, retailed wine “from the tap,” buying it cheaply in quantity and selling it at a profit. This meaning was extended to include any retail dealer who bought goods to sell over again or who, buying for someone else, acted as a middleman or agent. Initially this making money with money, as opposed to earning money from one’s labors, was considered immoral, like usury. Thus broker had derogatory implications, making it a natural term for a procurer or pimp, the female version being sometimes referred to as a brokeress. Marriage brokers, however, were quite legitimate. The pawnbroker came later, probably sometime in the seventeenth century, though pawning (giving something as security for a debt) was an old practice.

The latest incarnations of broker, in the American political domain, appeared in the 1960s: broker used as a verb (as in “to broker a nominating convention “), and power broker (coined by Theodore H. White in The Making of the President 1960, to refer to a behind-the-scenes person who wields political power and influence).

jackleg: A March editorial in The Nation used the southern dialect word jackleg, which means “unprofessional, incompetent, or disreputable”: “The Reverend Gorman, apparently out for revenge and knowledgeable in the ways of the jackleg clergy, reportedly stationed a photographer outside a motel, waiting for Jimmy Swaggart to turn up.” Although the word usually refers to preachers, it is also used for lawyers, doctors, carpenters, and members of virtually any other profession who might be accused of incompetence or disrepute. It can also refer to anything done in a shoddy manner, as in “He did a jackleg job repairing the table.” And it can be used as a noun: “He has been told many a time how the born-and-trained novelist works; won’t he let me round and complete his knowledge by telling him how the jack-leg does it?” (Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson, 1894).

Because it is a very common name, Jack, the nickname for John, came to mean in Elizabethan English “a lower-class man, a commoner or knave”: “A mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Iacke” ( The Taming of the Shrew). It has this basic meaning in numerous terms, including every man jack of them (“everyone”), jack-tar (“a common seaman”), jack-fool, jackanapes (“an impudent or conceited fellow”), and the name for the knave in playing cards. The expression jack of all trades, with the rest of the phrase, and master of none, usually left unsaid, is closest in meaning and perhaps derivation to jackleg. The leg that it stands on is related to the one in blackleg ("a racetrack gambler, swindler”), which was sometimes reduced to just leg: “He was a horse chaunter [a deceitful horse dealer]: he’s a leg now” (Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, 1837).

glasnost: It is virtually impossible these days to avoid the Russian buzz word glasnost. Glasnost is made up of the root golos (voice) and the nounforming suffix -nost or -ost, which works much like our suffix -ness (as in “openness”). Thus glasnost means literally “giving voice to something,”or “making something public.” The press usually takes a minor liberty with the word by extending it to mean “openness, frankness" or even “free speech”: “When calling for the continued flowering of art and culture under his policy of glasnost, or openness, Gorbachev warned against excessive literary and journalistic criticisms of Soviet history” (Time). A Russian-speaker would probably have used otkrovennost (openness, frankness) instead. Glasnost and its Russian root golos are distant relatives of the English words call and clatter. All have their origin in the IndoEuropean root gal (to sound out; to call, shout), which also gave Latin gallus (cock—that is, “the calling bird”).