Final Word

Will elections be a poleaxe for Zuma?


The day for the poll in this year’s municipal elections has arrived, which could – proverbially speaking and quite appropriately – see the head of political leaders like President Jacob Zuma role.

As we report elsewhere, the municipal elections of 2016 have developed into an exercise that is about much more than just who will be the representatives of municipal wards or which parties will rule for the next five years in which local governments.

In particular, it has turned into almost a referendum about whether Mr Zuma should remain in the office of the president.

In this context it is interesting to take a closer look at the word ‘poll’ and how it started being used in conjunction with words like ‘opinion’, ‘polling booth’, ‘polling station’ and more.

The word ‘poll’ arrived in English from German, and was first recorded, during the 14th century – although some sources place it in the 13th century. Originally the word meant ‘head’ or an individual person among a number. The same word is also found in Middle Dutch for ‘head’ or ‘top’.

From that developed the notion of the counting of heads (polls) to establish the number of people, including when taking a vote. This happened, according to one source, also at elections “before the days of mass literacy and secret ballots”.

This in turn, led to it that during the 17th century the connotation of counting polls was extended to votes, in which sense it was first recorded in the 1620s.

Opinion polls

 In the run-up to the election we have also heard and read quite a bit about ‘opinion polls’ aimed at predicting the results of the actual polling on election day.

The first known example of an opinion poll was a local straw poll conducted by The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian in 1824, showing Andrew Jackson leading John Quincy Adams by 335 votes to 169 in the contest for the United States presidency.

That opinion poll had more luck in terms of accuracy than the recent so-called Brexit polls. It turned out to be pretty accurate. The result was that such straw polls gradually became more popular, but they remained local, usually city-wide phenomena, until the early 1900s.

Initially opinion polls, also on a wider basis had a good run in terms of accurately predicting election results, but in recent years pollsters regularly had surprises as more instant access to information via the wide network of media, which facilitated sudden swings in opinion among voters.

Other extensions

The word ‘poll’, however over many years also got some other, less benign, extensions. So, by the 1690s, we had the term ‘poll tax’, literally meaning ‘head tax’ and the word ‘tadpoles’ for the larvae of amphibians, which literally means ‘toad heads’ as they have no limbs and appear to be composed of nothing but heads.

And then we get the ‘poleaxe’, which centuries ago in medieval Europe was an axe as a weapon of war, used to strike at the heads of the enemy.

It could also refer to an animal culling device, swung to strike cattle in the forehead. From this also came the proverbial use of poleaxe, referring to something happening that stuns people – ‘poleaxing’ people, maybe with the doubling of poll tax. This sort of proverbial use made its appearance somewhere in the 19th century.

Fact is, the polls in this week’s municipal elections could turn out to be a poleaxe for some political parties and leaders, including Mr Zuma, if his African National Congress gets hammered at the polls.

by Piet Coetzer

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