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Lesson in Lexicography

November 22, 2010

Apropos of nothing in particular, we bring you this discourse on the disputed derivation of the word “lobby.”

First, there’s an old hotel in the Washington, D.C., the Willard, that claims to be the birthplace of the term. It is said that President Grant used to come to the hotel for a drink in the afternoons, and that people seeking favors would stand in the ornate lobby waiting for him to walk by. As word of the President’s availability (and lubricated good humor) spread, the number of people grew and hotel workers coined the derisive term “lobbyists” to distinguish them from the hotel’s paying guests.

While this activity may have transpired as described, experts note that English dictionaries of Americanisms published in the 1840s included the word “lobby” and said that it was in wide usage to describe the act of seeking to influence the decisions of elected officials.

Since Grant was elected president in 1868, the Willard Hotel derivation would seem unlikely. (Those who support the hotel derivation counter that he might have been visiting the hotel when he was a Civil War general instead of president, but that still doesn’t go back far enough.)

Another equally colorful derivation is suggested by the poet Robert Hass, who says that there was once an individual named Joseph Lobby who, while running for alderman in a New England village at the turn of the 19th century, repeatedly wrote letters making the case for his candidacy.  The act of writing persuasive letters or otherwise seeking to influence people then became known as “Lobbying.”

Hass, master of the dramatic monologue and former U.S. Poet Laureate, asserts this derivation in a poem in which he notes that we all lobby to one extent or another.

Still other experts say the word originated in the 16th century in England and that it referred to a designated area at Parliament where members of the public could speak to members of the House of Commons.

We rather like the Hass explanation, and hope that in future posts we’ll also be able to tell the story of Gerald Mander and Phillip Ibuster.

So ends our lesson in lexicography.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. societax permalink
    November 22, 2010 3:45 PM

    The Oxford English Dictionary, identifying a US origin, lists the earliest documented usages as the intransitive verb in 1837 (a Cleveland, OH newspaper) and the transitive verb in 1850 (book by a British lord visiting the US). Wikipedia cites a recent book documenting an 1820 New Hampshire newspaper that in turn referred to contemporary letters that used the term.

    And speaking of language, why are you seemingly confusing the terms ‘lexicography,’ which involves the making of dictionaries, and ”etymology,’ which involves word origins? Perhaps you are attempting to discuss which word provenance should be adopted as the origin for writing a dictionary?

  2. Mark Keister permalink
    November 22, 2010 9:00 PM

    yawn ~
    pardon, professor; just can’t seem to stay awake . . .

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