Election 2010 (part 4), or What Are Hustings, Anyway?

In my previous post I took care to avoid using the word hustings, because it would take a whole separate post to explain. It’s not a word in common use in the US, and I have—as far as I can tell—mostly American readers, but over here the newspapers routinely report what candidates said “on the hustings”, and I receive invitations like this one from candidates standing (not running! UK politicians stand) in my area:

If you want to have your chance to come and hear what myself and the other candidates have to say on matters that effect you before you cast your vote on May 6th, then why not come along to one of the hustings that are coming up.

Setting aside any concerns about grammar and punctuation (sorry, I can’t help it; I’m an editor) as well as my perennial reaction to the use of “why not?” in advertising (if that’s the best reason you can come up with to make me want to take you up on your product, attend your event, or espouse your cause, then your position is awfully weak), what’s left is a fairly standard invitation to the hustings.

Hustings has a longer association with politicians than even people here who use the word routinely might think. Iceland has the world’s oldest parliament, known as the Alþing, which translates as All-thing—the funny p-shaped character (þ) being a thorn, a letter we don’t have in English anymore but which indicates a kind of th. Back in the year 930 when the Alþing was established, thing meant an assembly, so the All-thing was a national assembly of all the people. Thing didn’t come to mean an object until 400 years later, and it still clung to its original meaning in words such as hustings.

At that point, a husting literally meant a house-thing, that is, an assembly of all the members of the household of a noble. From there the definition broadened to mean a certain kind of court of law; in theory there is still a Court of Hustings in London, convened to register gifts made to the city, although it last met in 1885.

The definition broadened further and hustings came to mean any raised platform for speaking, before narrowing again to mean the temporary platform erected in London from which officials used to announce the names of the candidates for Parliament. (Even though there was only one platform, they left the s on the end of the word). When candidates themselves began addressing the people from that platform, hustings came to mean any political speech, and today retains that meaning, though it usually indicates a meeting in which several candidates speak.

So you can see that any of the addresses by politicians I’ve posted about, from televised debates between party leaders to local candidates appearing in a church hall, can be called hustings.

I did manage to get to one of the local hustings over the weekend, but I’ll have to tell you about that tomorrow. In the meantime, given the wording of that “why not?” invitation (quoted above), and given all of the politicians I’ve heard over the last month, including party leaders, saying things like “myself and my party believe in fairer taxes” and “less people will have to pay inheritance tax”, I’m thinking of forming the Editorial Pedants’ party. We wouldn’t have any policies on the economy or immigration; we’d leave the substance to other politicians, while advocating the correct use of affect and effect, licenses for those who want to use less or fewer, the allocation of funds to add question marks to the ends of deprived questions, and stronger penalties for using myself as the subject of a sentence. See you on the hustings.



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4 responses to “Election 2010 (part 4), or What Are Hustings, Anyway?

  1. Christine Lindop

    Splendid idea. Let’s get Joanna Lumley to be our figurehead, and we can sweep to power! Fascinating insights into the origin of ‘hustings’, by the way.

  2. Mary Korndorffer

    I always think of “hustings” as being a Shouting Match, usually in public, but nowadays more often in a hall. (Indeed I remember Barbara Castle in the 1960s standing on the roof of a car with a loud-hailer, haranguing the crowd!) Since the arrival of TV, there have been fewer (N.B.!) public meetings, and especially this year with the quasi-presidential debates, slicker presentation. However, I have just been in the town centre (Guildford, near to Mary Ellen’s home) where the Lib-Dem candidate and acolytes were meeting-n-greeting and handing out orange flyers, what is also called “on the stump”. She is up against the sitting Conservative MP, also a woman, who took the seat by only about 300 votes 5 years ago, so this is a close-run constituency.

    • Americans use “on the stump” as well, plus “whistle-stop tour”–is that used here?

      As for Joanna Lumley–sounds great! Now we just need a battle cry, like the one she had for her Gurkha campaign. Suggestions?

  3. Please do get out your red editorial pen. Myself believes its quite necessary.

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