On the hustings

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Hustings meeting
I’ve been going door-to-door for the past few weeks in my campaign for re-election. Stumping on the hustings, as it’s called in Canada. Or at least that’s how I’ve always heard it used.

Hustings is an odd, old word, an anachronism that survives, seemingly, only in the world of politics. It comes from the days when England was a series of small kingdoms suffering frequent invasions by the Danes and Vikings. A few of the old Germanic and Norse words have managed to survive in our language, reminder of those distant, violent days.

The first known use, Wikipedia says, in a charter dated 1032 CE. But it probably was in oral use long before that document.

Husting derives from an Old Norse word, “hús” which meant ‘house. ’ It combines with “thing ” to make “hústhing,” which meant a ‘household assembly held by a leader.’ The meeting of the men who were in the household of a noble or royal leader. They would be the noble’s ‘cabinet’ or advisors.

Husting later came to mean more generically any assembly or parliament. In Old English, as the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, it meant ‘meeting, court’ or ‘tribunal.’

The word appears in Middle English – the language of Chaucer – referring to the highest court of the City of London. From there is begins an odd transformation to mean the platform where the Lord Mayor and aldermen presided. By the early 18th century, it meant any temporary platform on which parliamentary candidates were nominated. And by 1719, it came to mean generally a platform for political speeches.

That evolved into an even more general sense of the election process itself. In England, it still refers to a meeting or an assembly where all candidates are present. Or, as Wikipedia says, “a combination of a debate, speeches or questions from the electors.” You can “go to the hustings” or “attend the hustings” as a member of the audience, or as a politician (Word Wizard notes) you can “hit the hustings” or “take to the hustings.”

I’ve often heard it said candidates are “on the hustings” when on the campaign trail, going door-to-door. This isn’t exactly the sense meant by the term, but calling it “stumping” is equally incorrect if we’re to be true to the etymology (see below).

There are online references to a verbal form too: to hust, although I’ve never encountered it in Canada. The singular form of the noun – husting – seems to have vanished while the plural form survives.

Stumping on the hustings seems a unique Canadianism, combing the American “stump” – the campaign trail – or “stumping” – campaigning – with the British hustings. Or maybe it’s just something made up by some media wag that stuck.

Essentially “the stump” and “the hustings” are now synonymous, both meaning campaign trail (common American uses include a stump speech or on the stump), but Canadians have combined them by changing the noun to a verb. Yes, yes, it is somewhat of a redundancy.

On Separated by a Common Language, it notes that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the American term derives from the use of the stump of a felled tree as a platform for an election speech:

In early use, the stump (sense 2) of a large felled tree used as a stand or platform for a speaker. b. Hence, ‘a place or an occasion of political oratory’ (Cent. Dict.). to go on the stump, to take the stump: to go about the country making political speeches, whether as a candidate or as the advocate of a cause. In the U.S. the word ‘does not necessarily convey a derogatory implication’ (Cent. Dict.). In Britain, though now common, it is still felt to be somewhat undignified.

There also seems a difference between the number of participants: hustings suggests more than one participant; stumping is done alone. It’s a distinction overlooked by the Canadian usage. Nor does our use seem to convey the derogatory sense (in the UK to stump someone also means to bring to an abrupt halt, so that’s where the derogatory sense may arise).

Another linguistic difference, by the way is that in the UK, politicians stand for office, but in the US, they run for it. I’ve heard both used in Canada, but more often the Americanism.

And in the USA and Canada where you vote for more than one but only those few candidates you really want, it’s called ‘strategic voting’ while in the UK it’s called ‘tactical voting.’ A local example of this is voting for just two prime council candidates of the possible seven you are allowed to select (I can offer you the two names I recommend, by the way…).

I’ve personally felt at times that they called it “stumping” because you wore your legs down to stumps with all that walking, but even if that’s not the correct etymology, after knocking on several thousand doors, it sure feels like it some days.

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