Cabal is most often used to denote a conspiracy, particularly one which controls an organization or government. The word entered the English language from the French cabale and ultimately comes from the Hebrew qabbalah, the medieval body of arcane and mystical Jewish teachings. The earliest use of cabal cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1616, cited in John Bullokar’s An English Expositor:
Cabal, the tradition of the Jewes doctrine of religion.
Within a few years, the word had generalized to mean any secret tradition or teaching, not just the particular Jewish tradition. David Person, in his Varieties of 1635, writes:
An insight in the Cabals and secrets of Nature.
By 1646, the modern sense of a conspiracy had arisen. From Edward Hyde’s, the 1st Earl of Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England:
The King...asked him, whether he were engaged in any Cabal concerning the army?
There is a very popular, but false, etymology that claims that cabal is an acronym for the names of five ministers of Charles II (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale) who were at the bottom of various political intrigues in the early 1670s. According to history, these five, plus others, defaulted on the national debt by closing the exchequer in 1670, started a war with Holland in 1672, and entered into an alliance with the hated French in 1673.
As we have seen use of the word in the modern sense predates the nefarious schemes of these five by some twenty-five years and in other senses is much older.
There is, however, a kernel of truth to the story. Cabal was indeed used to refer specifically to this group, even if the names don’t constitute the origin. Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s History of His Own Time (1715) says:
This junta...being called the cabal, it was observed that cabal proved a technical word, every letter in it being the first letter of those five, Clifford, Ashley, Buckingham, Arlington and Lauderdale.
So, it is clear that these five schemers were immortalized by a play on words. Their names, arranged in the proper order, form a neat acrostic. The others involved in their plots are left out because their names did not begin with the proper letters, and besides, there was only room for five. A few quotes show that others were included in the governing cabal from time to time and that these five were not always political allies. From Samuel Pepys’s Diary of 1767:
The Cabal at present, being as he says the King, and the Duke of Buckingham, and Lord Keeper, the Duke of Albemarle and privy seale.
And from Andrew Marvell’s Correspondence of 1670:
The governing cabal are Buckingham, Lauderdale, Ashly, Orery, and Trevor. Not but the other cabal [Arlington, Clifford, and their party] too have seemingly sometimes their turn.
It is a fun story with some historical truth behind it, but it’s not the origin of the word.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton