I discussed the electoral college with my Latin students today, apropos of the Presidential election, of course, and described its Roman historical and etymological roots. As a break from our essential but enervating grammar explanations, such a lesson passes as “fun” in my class.
The Roman Republic divided its voting citizens into groups of 100, called centuries. The Senate submitted proposals to the Centurial Assembly, and each century got one vote. This was, then, an electoral college.The Roman aristocracy was fearful of the rabble, as were our Founding Fathers, who borrowed and adapted this indirect system. It gave our Founders a way to choose the President more or less democratically, without relying too, too much on fickle and possibly unwashed citizens.
This system is convoluted enough, but many Americans are probably confused by the term itself. Why are these electors part of a college? Do they hang out on a campus, sharing a keg while they choose the President? A look at the word’s Latin roots clears up the confusion. College comes from the Latin verb colligo, which means gather together or collect. (One of the verb’s principal parts is in fact collectum.) Colleague, collegial¸and collection are related English words. So the electoral college, or really any college, is fundamentally a collection or gathering.
Electoral derives from eligo, which means choose or select. Electors are people who do some choosing. So the electoral college is a gathering of people who choose. Both the concept and the words themselves come to us from the Romans.
To digress, while perusing the internet for extra information, I ran across a blog by a certain Steve with a couple of amusing idioms smack in the first sentence. In a post dating from 2000, Steve addressed the alleged weaknesses of the electoral college vis a vis the “brew ha ha” then in the news. You remember it, don’t you? That brew ha-ha regarding hanging chads (see photo) and Florida and good old Katherine Harris? That was one nightmarish brew ha ha. Maybe that one was a kegger.
Then, Steve comments, “I have whittled away my hours,” researching the topic. Maybe that’s an actual expression I’m just not familiar with. I always thought we while away the hours. Maybe it’s writer being creative. Or maybe it’s just Steve being Steve.
Steve, by the way, is a big fan of the electoral college, fearing that popular election of the President would lead to socialism. Share your thoughts on the electoral college here.