If the word vote had remained true to its linguistic origins it would have been the politicians, not the electorate, doing the voting.
Ultimately, the verb vote comes from the Latin verb vovere, meaning to promise solemnly – and that is what the political candidates are supposed to be doing, promising us a better way of life under their leadership.
The past participle of vovere is votus and this came into English as vote. A secondary meaning of the Latin verb was to wish for – and, from the 15th century, the English meaning of the verb vote came to mean to express your wishes by taking part in some kind of ballot, that is to vote.
While we are voting, the politicians will be vowing – to do so much better than any of their opponents. Curiously enough, vote and vow share a common linguistic background. Like vote, vow comes from the Latin verb vovere, this time in its original meaning of to promise solemnly. Vow reached English from Latin via Anglo-Norman vou.
Australasia seems to have been much more progressive than other countries when it came to voting. The modern system of secret ballots was introduced in Victoria, Australia in 1856 and this was not made law in Britain until 1872. It is interesting to note that, in the days before secret voting, one of the reasons cited for denying women the vote was that they would not be able to cope with the rowdy behaviour of other voters expressing their preferences. Sensitive souls!
In 1893, New Zealand was the first country to grant universal voting rights to women. It was not until 1928 that Britain allowed women the same voting rights as men, although women over the age of 30 were allowed to vote from 1918, if they were householders, or were married to householders, or if they had a university degree. Women had been formally prohibited from voting after the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act.
Sadly, a great many people now express their political preferences not by voting by ballot, but by voting with their feet. In other words, they turn their backs on the whole electoral process and, whether from apathy or disgust, have nothing to do with it. Hence, the usual low turnouts on voting day.
To some extent I sympathise with such an attitude. However, remembering the lengths to which some people, especially women, had to go to in order to have the right to vote, I always force myself through the doors of the polling station at the appointed time. I hope you will do the same.
Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.