The Roots of “Vote”

Political scientists I’ve talked with over the years seem unsure about the idea of voting. As one might expect, most of them perceive voting to be a phenomenon connected to, even controlled by, other phenomenon, including the deployment of money for advertising, a “ground game,” an “air game, and also including how vast political systems, like political parties, massage voters’ irrational responses. I know at least one political scientist who simply doesn’t vote, partly (I suspect) because he knows too much about how votes are generated, and partly because me doesn’t want to participate in the awful spectacle, politics–except as a student of it.

After Bush, with the assistance of the Supreme Court, beat Gore, one political scientist said to me, with a kind of disbelief, “I guess voting can matter.” It was one of those vivid, humorous moments in academia when, briefly, an academic expresses a view that the public–for better or worse–simply takes for granted: Well, of course voting matters! Probably most people who have lived through a lot of elections think something Yogi-Berra-esque about voting: It doesn’t matter, except of course when it matters.

Against such a cynically confused background, then, etymology presents an appealingly simple profile. According to the OED online, and as one might expect, the roots of “vote” (as verb and noun) lie in Latin [vovere], with tendrils in Spanish and French, and originally linked to desire. “Votive” has a different Latin root. “Vote” is a relatively young word in English:

3. a. intr. To give a vote; to exercise the right of suffrage; to express a choice or preference by ballot or other approved means.
1552 in Rec. Convent. Roy. Burghs (1870) I. 3 Thair sall convene in the Tolbuyth the auld counsale and new,..and thair to begyn at the litis of provestre, and to woit about throw that haill nowmer. 1637-50 ROW Hist. Kirk (Wodrow Soc.) 191 Because the brethren could not be fullie resolved for the present concerning the office of him who should vote in Parliament. 1651 HOBBES Govt. & Soc. vii. §1. 110 A Councell..of all the Citizens, (insomuch as every man of them hath a Right to Vote..) or of a part onely.

It is nice to see Hobbes mentioned.

Those who appreciate the quirks of language may enjoy the following observation from the OED–namely, that sometimes when we use “vote” as a verb, we simultaneously create a quasi-adverb (that is missing its -ly tail):

c. With the name of a political party or of a candidate as quasi-adv.
1918 [see LABOUR n. 2c]. 1926 Socialist Rev. Oct. 48 There are still hundreds of thousands of voters who cannot bring themselves to vote Conservative. 1938 Sun (Baltimore) 6 Sept. 20 (caption) Vote Lewis. 1949 C. P. SNOW Time of Hope I. iv. 42 He voted radical and she was a vehement tory.

Voting may matter sometimes. Etymology always matters, so there’s that.


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