Election Jargon

Elections are fertile source of slang and political jargon and the 2006 US midterm elections were no exception. At least two words came to the fore in this most recent election.

One is change election. A change election is one in which the electorate permanently changes its traditional voting pattern, ousting one party from power and replacing it with another. The term dates to at least 1992 when it was used in the Christian Science Monitor on 27 April 1992 in reference to voter dissatisfaction with the political parties in the Pennsylvania primary election of that year:

"This is a ‘change’ election," says G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa. His polls also suggest widespread voter disaffection. Like many political observers here, he expects a significant decline in voter turnout.

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Mulligan is golfing jargon for an extra stroke after an especially poor swing that is not counted on the scorecard. The origin is unknown, although it seems likely that there was once a really poor golfer named Mulligan whose partners would allow him extra strokes. But if this is true, his identity is now lost to the ages.

The term dates to at least 1938 when it appears in the Coshocton Tribune (Ohio) of 16 April:

A “mulligan” is a golfing handicap which allows a golfer to re-play any one tee shot he chooses to.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)


The origin of this word for an important person is from the Chinook Jargon muckamuck, meaning food, or when used as a vert to eat. Chinook Jargon, not to be confused with the native American language Chinook, was a pidgin used by traders in the American Northwest with Chinook, Nootka, English, and French at its core. Muckamuck may originally come from the Nootka mahomaq, meaning whalemeat, but this last is uncertain.

English use of muckamuck, in the sense of to eat, dates to 1838 when it appears in a glossary, Samuel Parker’s Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains:

Eat, mucamuc

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A reader wrote me asking about this word. It seems she was conversing with someone from Holland and upon telling him that her husband was a mortgage broker, the Dutchman assumed he was a mortician. She wanted to know where the word mortgage came from and if it was etymologically related to mortician and mortuary.

The two words are etymologically related. They both derive from the Latin mori meaning to die (via the Old French mort). In the case of mortician, the logical connection with death is obvious, but with mortgage it is not so apparent.

In the word mortgage, the mort- is from the Latin word for death and -gage is from the sense of that word meaning a pledge to forfeit something of value if a debt is not repaid. It appears in Old French as gage mort as early as 1267. The form mort gage appears in Old French by 1283 and mortgage made its way into Anglo-Norman. Use in English dates to1390, when it appears in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis:

In mariage His trouthe plight lith in morgage.
(In marriage, His troth plight lies in mortgage.)

So mortgage is literally a dead pledge. It was dead for two reasons, the property was forfeit or “dead” to the borrower if the loan were not repaid and the pledge itself was dead if the loan was repaid. In the words of the 17th century English jurist (and apparently etymologist) Edward Coke in his 1628 The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England:

It seemeth that the cause why it is called mortgage is, for that it is doubtful whether the Feoffor will pay at the day limited such summe or not, & if he doth not pay, then the Land which is put in pledge vpon condition for the payment of the money, is taken from him for euer, and so dead to him vpon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant, &c.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)


You may note in these pages and in other etymological works that famous people seemed to have coined a lot of words. Often, the famous people were not actually the first to use a particular word or phrase, but rather their usage is the oldest surviving example and they get credit by default. Naturally, we tend to preserve the works of famous people and great writers, and the letters, diaries, and other writings of ordinary folk are lost to the ages.

Morphology, however, is not one of these cases. It was actually coined by a famous person. More interesting, however, are the circumstances under which it was coined.

The famous person in question is none other than Johann Wolfgang Goethe, arguably the greatest of German poets. That such a man of letters should coin a phrase is unremarkable, except that it was coined in a work on biology. Goethe, in addition to his literary talents, was a rather good naturalist. In 1817, he published Zur Naturwissenschaft uberhaupt, besonders zur Morphologic. In that work, he combined two Greek roots, morph meaning shape, and -ology meaning science, to create a word for the study of shape and structure of living organisms.

Within a few years the word was being used in English works on biology, introduced via translations of French works that used the term. From Robert Knox’s 1828 translation of J.H. Cloquet’s System of Human Anatomy:

Descriptive Anatomy...is itself capable of being divided into the Particular Anatomy of Organs, or Morphology, and the Anatomy of Regions, or Topographical Anatomy, if we may use the expression.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

monkey wrench

What monkey wrenches have to do with monkeys is unknown. The term monkey has been used for a variety of devices, from cannons to pile-drivers, and it seems likely that the wrench’s name is related to this usage, but exactly how is uncertain.

This term for a wrench with an adjustable jaw dates to the early 19th century and is originally British, although now it is chiefly North American in usage. From a citation believed to be from 1807 that appears in E.S. Dane’s Peter Stubs & Lancashire Hand Tool Industry:

Fleetwood, Richard...Parr, Rainford. Screw plates, lathes, clock engines...monkey wrenches, taps.

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What is a mondegreen you ask? It is a misheard song lyric (or other utterance), one where the phonetic components can be interpreted to have an entirely different meaning than what the lyricist intended. Some examples include:

  • “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear” (Gladly the Cross I’d Bear), from the hymn of that title.
  • “A girl with colitis goes by” (a girl with kaleidoscope eyes), from Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, by the Beatles.
  • “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (excuse me while I kiss the sky), from Purple Haze, by Jimi Hendrix.
  • “Who knows what evil lurks in the hot cement” (who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men), catchphrase for the radio show The Shadow.
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Diegogarcity Alert

In researching this article, I came across the two listed citations from Alfred’s and Chaucer’s translations of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiæ. Then, last night while reading a New Yorker article ("Game Master," by John Seabrook, 6 Nov 2006) about video game designer Will Wright, designer of The Sims, I came across another Boethius reference:

The designer must play God, or at least the notion of God in Boethius’ "Consolation of Philosophy"–a god that can anticipate the outcome of the player’s actions and yet allows the player the feeling of free will.

I love The New Yorker. Where else would an article about video games contain a reference to a 6th century Christian philosopher.

(For those of you who are wondering, diegogarcity is a term coined by Aldiboronti on the Wordorigins discussion forum for the coincidence of just learning something new, such as a new word, and then seeing it in several places immediately afterwords. It is a play on serendipity, as Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka. For this concept, Aldi chose another Indian Ocean island as the namesake.)

Master, Mister, Mistress

The word master has several different, although related, meanings in English. And it has given rise to a well-known variant, mister. The noun master is almost exclusively used to refer to males, but there is a female counterpart in mistress. These words have also given rise to various abbreviations, Mr., Mrs., and Ms.

The etymology of master is, on the surface, rather straightforward. It’s from the Latin magister. Although if one gets into the details, one finds that the situation is somewhat more complex. Magister was imported into English twice during the Old English period with different vowel sounds. The earlier, mægister, eventually gave rise to the form mister, as well as several other orthographic variants. Somewhat later it was borrowed again as magister, with the vowel a being longer than it is today, but exactly how long is uncertain. The vowel in this second form shortened in the Middle English period, leaving us with the modern master.

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high misdemeanor

See misdemeanor.

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