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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Voting or polling?

After our recent municipal elections, a friend posted this picture to facebook,
Photo: Gael Spivak
commenting, as a fan of Plain English, that  the unambiguous wording "voting place" was much better than the more traditional "polling station". Polling stations are more commonly "polling places" in the US, but the latter term was also used in Scotland's recent referendum. Incidentally, I noticed on all similar pictures in Google Images of Ottawa signs that they were affixed with the same blue tape, which makes me wonder whether democracy in Ottawa is being held together by duct tape, but I digress.

It's "polling" that's the issue. Since the word "poll" took on the meaning "conduct an opinion survey" in the early 20th century, that has become by far its most common meaning. The "record votes in an election" sense has been replaced altogether, surviving only in these compounds, "polling station" and "polling place". So there is an argument to be made that "polling station" is now misleading, or at least not helpful, especially in a society like Canada's where English is a second language for many.

"Voting place" seems to be catching on in official communications from the elections authorites (though Elections Canada still seems to prefer "polling station"). However, in newspapers, the favoured word is still overwhelmingly "polling station", by a factor of 10 to 1.

Here in Toronto, whatever we call our venues, our signs went for a very efficient, space-saving, bald command (or maybe, in view of the ghastly four years of municipal politics we've just endured, it was a plea?):

I wonder if anyone has done a study on whether a verb lures more people to vote than a noun does. I know there have been studies showing that using the word "please" persuades people to act, so maybe in future our signs should say "Please vote here".

Where did "poll" and "vote" come from?

"Poll" arose in the  13th century, possibly borrowed from Dutch pol (top, summit), and originally meant "the part of the head on which the hair grows, the top of the head". It soon came to be used as a verb meaning "shave the hair on the head" and, after a couple of centuries, this verb was being used to mean "establish a head count" (a much more recent expression dating from the early 1900s). By the 1600s, "poll" was being used to mean "count votes" and, later "cast or record a vote".

"Vote" comes from the Latin vōtum (vow, wish), a past participle of vovēre (to vow, desire). Like many words borrowed from Latin, it came into English at the Renaissance, but was used only by the Scots until the 17th century.

So, if it hadn't been for the Scots, those Toronto signs would say "POLL HERE".

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.