Friday, 7 May 2010

Ballots and Balls

Ballot comes from the Venetian word ballotte, which means small balls. Indeed, the term arrived on English shores inside The Historie of Italie by William Thomas. The idea was that you could cast votes by placing different coloured balls (or pebbles) into a bag.

This idea leads back to ancient Athens. If the Athenians wanted to banish somebody for not being classical enough, they would vote on the question by putting little black or white fragments of pottery in a box. White meant yes: black no. These tiles were called ostrakons. Hence ostracism. Ostracism has nothing to do with ostriches but is distantly related to oysters (both words relate to bone).

The first verbing of ostracism was in this apt couplet by Andrew Marvell:

Therefore the democratic stars did rise,
And all that worth from hence did ostracize.

The method and term survives to this day in blackballing. In the gentlemen's clubs of London an application for membership may be refused on the basis of a single black ball in the ballot box.

In ancient Syracuse votes for banishment did not use shards of pottery. They used olive leaves and so ostracism was called petalismos, which is far more beautiful.

A brown ballot box containing balls, darling.


  1. Don't talk to me about Balls ...

  2. The thing is, how do you KNOW all this? The ostrakon/ostracism thing is just fascinating.

  3. Fran, I have my suspicions that he is brilliant and successful -perhaps having made his fortune with the invention of an essential item that we all use every day without suspecting Dogberry is the brain behind it - and is therefore able to devote himself full-time to his first love, the study of the English language, among others. Oh, and he's probably very good-looking. With long-ish hair.

  4. I'll have you know that I had my hair-cut on Tuesday, although I did invent the animated paperclip on Microsoft Word.

  5. I see him as an unreconstructed Elizabethan courtier... and no-one can stop me.