The Prime Minister Primer

Posted in General on December 21st, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

December 21, 1804Benjamin Disraeli is born.  Disappointed that that there is no mysterious star or choir of angels, the indignant family subsequently converts to a theology with better pyrotechnics.

My idea of casual conversation would include an allusion to Benjamin Disraeli. My acquaintance’s idea of a response was “Who?”  I hoped that I maintained a stoic mien but my eyebrows might have been doing the semaphores of  “How can you be so stupid?” The acquaintance is Gentile; so she would have been indifferent to the most interesting feature of Disraeli. I just provided her with a brief description of a “British prime minister of the 19th century and a man of extraordinary charm and wit.”

Now, I don’t want to seem like a pedantic bully  (even if I really am) but I think that a middle-aged college graduate should have heard of Benjamin Disraeli. He is not obscure. It is not as if I had belabored the poor woman with such prime ministerial ciphers as Henry Campbell-Bannerman or James Callahan. (And if I had mentioned Andrew Bonar Law, she might have slapped me.)

I realized that Americans’ criterion for historical significance is whether or not it was made into a movie. But Disraeli has been, and he has been portrayed by George Arliss, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ian McShane. Given Disraeli’s origins, Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller may feel entitled to play him! No, that woman should have heard of Disraeli.

In fact, I think that a number of British prime ministers merit at least a minimum of recognition.

Lord North (1770-1782), the idiot during the American Revolution.

William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-1806) if only because Pittsburgh was named for his father.

Earl Grey (1830-1834) because he had such great taste in tea. Yes, really.

Benjamin Disraeli (1868, 1874-1880): He needs no introduction.

William Gladstone (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894): Disraeli’s rival. If Disraeli was Groucho, Gladstone was Margaret Dumont.

David Lloyd George (1916-1922) in case you were wondering who was standing next to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.

Neville Chamberlain (1937-1940) who is now remembered as an insult and an accusation.

Winston Churchill (1940-45, 1951-1955), the man George Bush claimed to be–give or take the eloquence.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990): Disraeli’s politics with Gladstone’s charm.

Tony Blair (1997-2007) if only to prove that you were not completely oblivious.

David Cameron (2010–?)…oh, maybe not.


My Hanukkah Medley

Posted in General on December 15th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

Menorah resizedTonight is the beginning of Hanukkah.  Over the next eight nights, we will light an increasing number of candles, probably trying to find a decent song for the Holiday.  You will notice that this was the one miracle that Jesus didn’t attempt; either that or getting rid of the Romans would have converted us.

Jews obviously can write music.  Count the Gentiles of  Tin Pan Alley….That didn’t take long.  Yet, what can explain our inability to write “Rhapsody in Jew” for Hanukkah?  I wonder if it can be attributed to our other great creation:  guilt.  Perhaps we have a belated regret that we didn’t slightly assimilate sooner.  Are we Parthenon-plussed?



If only we could go back in time.  Imagine me on the steps of the Temple….

Here’s what Hellas has to tell us.

Achilles, Socrates, Ptolemy and Sophocles.

Can William Kristol compare to these?

All we are saying is give Greece a chance.

All we are saying is give Greece a chance.

Why be bereft of these gifts?

Philosophy, comedy, and best of all democracy!

Let’s not dwell on sodomy.

All we are saying is give Greece a chance.

All we are saying is give Greece a chance.


And now for my usual pedantics….

The Story of Hanukkah: Hellas, No. We Won’t Go!

In the second century BCJ (before Cousin Jesus), Syria extended far beyond the borders of the country that we know and love. It also included Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon. (Lebanon still may be part of Syria.) This very large kingdom was a fragment of Alexander’s Empire that had been divided among his generals. Seleucus grabbed it, and his ancestors continued to rule it two centuries later.

Seleucus was Greek as was the ruling caste; and these Hellenes made themselves comfortable by recreating the Greek culture in their kingdom. The same was true of the other grasping Greek and Macedonian generals. Egypt, under the Ptolemies, was Hellenized. There were Hellenized satraps in Afghanistan and India. (Even the statues of Buddha started to look remarkably like Apollo.)

A descendant of Seleucus, Antiochus the Third attempted to expand his empire into Greece. However, Rome had the same idea at the same time. Guess who won? The Romans pushed him out of Greece and then defeated him in Asia Minor (190 B.C)

His son Antiochus the Fourth inherited a smaller empire; however, he tried to make it more cohesive by imposing uniform Hellenization. But one province, with a very idiosyncratic theology, did not really appreciate the glories and gifts of Greek civilization.

Who could resist all the enticements of Western civilization? Art, theater, medicine, bathing! Had we been a little more receptive, “Pygmalion” could have been a musical 2000 years sooner.

My ancestors must have been real ingrates. In fact, those Semitic fundamentalists were so unappreciative of imposed western values that they rose in rebellion. (Do you think that history repeats itself?)

The Greeks were then obliging enough to lose the war. This was at a time when the Jews hardly ever won–obviously long before there were Nobel prizes in Economics or Emmy Awards for comedy writers.

In any case, but for Jennifer Aniston’s ancestors, we wouldn’t have Hanukkah as a psychological shield against the veritable avalanche of Christmas.

Edward VIII Becomes Windsor I

Posted in General on December 11th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

December 11, 1936:  A Love Story

BridiccaIt is so gratifying when two rotten people find each other, a true meeting of the heartless. Otherwise, they might be afflicting the lives of more innocuous souls. In the case of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor (nee Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) he would have been ruining an entire nation.

If the British throne were reserved for the greatest upper class twit of the day, Edward VIII was indeed the rightful king. He had impeccable taste in clothing and complete distaste for democracy, tolerance, and any other manifestation of intelligence. In fact, he could not even master the well-mannered hypocrisy to mask his royal snits. As the Prince of Wales, he travelled throughout the Empire and generously conferred his racist opinions of the very people he was visiting. When a guest at a home, he expected the hostess to offer to sleep with him. However, he looked so good in his clothing that the infatuated Press and public never cared to delve beneath that dapper surface.

Since women were always throwing themselves at him, it is remarkable that a homely American social-climber made so great an impression on his self-satisfied mind. Bessie Wallis Warfield wanted to rise in the world and had the predatory talent to do it. The impoverished Baltimore girl won scholarships to the best schools, but her aim was not the education but the social contacts. That acquired cachet and its admission into better circles afforded her marriage into the minor gentry; from there, she progressed to a second marriage into the nouveau riche. (Mr. Simpson’s family name was originally Samuels; at least he and his wife had social-climbing in common.) But Wallis Simpson aspired to old money, and the heir to the British throne certainly had that.

They met in 1934, and she quickly established herself as his mistress. No one then or now can explain how a homely, married American could have so completely enthralled the Prince of Wales. His mother, the Queen, conjectured that Mrs. Simpson was a sexual contortionist. (Of course, to Queen Mary, that could describe anything beyond the missionary position.) Others have speculated that Wallis Simpson bullied him and gratified some masochistic quirks. They did share a vicious, selfish nature with a soft spot for pug dogs. We can only speculate. Love is blind, probably from a veneral disease.

After the death of his father in 1936, the prince, now Edward VIII, let it be known that he intended to marry Mrs. Simpson and have her reign as Queen. The British government opposed it. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin could ignore Hitler but not this affront to good taste. Everything was wrong about the twice-married American social climber, including the fact that she had yet to divorce Mr. Simpson. If the King persisted, then Baldwin threatened to resign. Nor was the King finding any support from the royal family; the people who knew him best liked him least.   And the Press too had finally noticed the King’s behavior. His tantrums didn’t wear as well as his clothing.

So, since he could not rule “with the woman I love”, Edward abdicated the throne and left Britain. Wallis finally got a divorce but not a king; she had to settle for a Duke. Nonetheless, the newly-wed Duke and Duchess of Windsor did have friends. American tabloids were touched by such a love story. There also was that nice little Herr Hitler; in fact, he even expressed a hope to put Edward back on Britain’s throne. The Duke and Duchess would frequently express their appreciation of that thoughtful Herr Hitler. (So Winston Churchill put them unofficially under house arrest in the Bahamas.)

But the Duke and the Duchess lived happily–well-dressed, selfish and vacuous–ever after.

This is the anniversary of his abdication. And history remembers it as the only decent thing that he ever did.

Misery Chord

Posted in General, On This Day on November 21st, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

November 22nd:  St. Cecilia’s Day

St Cecilia's jukeboxOn this day in either A.D. 170 or 223 St. Cecilia died; even the Church can’t keep track of all its virgin martyrs. However, St. Cecilia’s death should have been memorable. She died three days after her decapitation. The patron saint of music evidently had mastered breath control. (A Wagnerian soprano might last two weeks after a decapitation.) And Cecilia really gave a farewell performance, spending much of her last three days in song. You or I might use our miraculous powers to regenerate a neck, but that is why we are not saints.

If Cecilia was a virgin martyr, at the very least her husband was a saint, too. His name was Valerian. On their wedding night, Cecilia told him that she had a wonderful surprise for him if he converted to Christianity. The young patrician promptly did, and an angel then appeared to explain the bliss of chastity. Valerian apparently never convinced Cecilia of the need for charity. The Church records Valerian as a saint and martyr–but not as a virgin. There may be limits to what you can ask of an Italian man.

Cecilia turned their home into a church and that certainly violated Roman zoning ordinances. Of course, the law blamed Valerian; the husband is supposed to be responsible. When Valerian refused to make a sacrifice to the Gods, he became the sacrifice. The matter might have ended there. Roman authorities were not really interested in prosecuting aristocratic women for their religious eccentricities. In fact, the government regarded Christianity as a females’ religion; good works and virtue were perfectly compatible with a woman’s domestic role in Roman society. The danger of Christianity was if the men became less bloodthirsty or if the slaves demanded justice.

But Cecilia would not let herself be ignored. She continued to preach and sing. In planning her execution, the authorities first showed her the consideration due an aristocratic lady. Being sealed in a steam bath was said to be painless and therapeutic; you suffocated while enjoying all the benefits of a facial. (This particular form of execution was even considered Christian; the Emperor Constantine applied it to an unfaithful wife. It only fell out of use when bathing did in the sixth century.) However, as seems to be the rule with all of these martyrdoms, the first attempt always fails. Cecilia survived the steam treatment, and Romans then tried decapitation. That eventually worked.

You now may see St. Cecilia’s head in Rome, Italy. Unfortunately, it no longer takes musical requests.

Eugene’s Prim and Proper History

Posted in General on November 19th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Here is the latest installment in the series: the Johnstown Flood.






Best Sellers of A.D. 534

Posted in General on November 15th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

November 16, 534:  The Justinian Code

Byzantine bookWhat did the Byzantines do for fun? The eunuchs certainly indulged in wishful thinking, and everyone loved debating the correct prepositions in defining the Holy Trinity. But for pure hilarity the medieval Greeks had their own version of MadLibs: the Justinian Code.

The Emperor Justinian was a workaholic and he expected everyone else to be one, too. The legal department was ordered to compile 400 years of imperial edicts and publish them in one handy reference. Tactfully named the Justinian Code, it was a best seller. Every Byzantine bureaucrat bought a copy, if only to learn what laws he would have broken by not buying it.

Now the Byzantine magistrate knew all the legal precedents for judging a merchant who shortweighted anchovies on St. Halitosia’s Day. (That would be the St. Halitosia of Cappodocia, not the one of Epirus.) According to the Code, the correct punishment would be amputation of the right side of the nose. Furthermore, the Code would establish the cost of the surgery. If the amputation was performed by an in-network torturer, the government would cover the cost–after the victim’s initial co-payment. The government would cover only fifty percent of the cost for an out-of-network torturer.

Finally, establishing the definitive standard for government bureaucracy and human resource departments, the Code was in Latin and its audience read Greek.

Pug Dogma

Posted in General on November 12th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

img00018-20091117-2129The New York Times seems to have declared war on Pugs, denouncing the endearing little lapdogs as being designer-breed concoctions of recessive genes. Of course, you could say that the same thing about the couples in the Times’ wedding announcements. I will admit that Pugs have not retained many of their ancestral lupine traits. Even two thousand years ago, a pack of Pugs would have only hunted egg rolls dropped from the imperial banquet table.

Here is my tribute to the Pug.

It is said that owners resemble their dogs. I will never be that fortunate. As the nominal owner but actual servant of Pugs, I may yet achieve their wrinkles but Semitic inbreeding precludes the hope of a pug nose. Beyond my physical inferiority, I cannot emulate the charm and grace of a Pug. My Pugs have maintained their decorum despite the frequent queries, “Is that the dog in ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Men in Black’?” I am the one ready to snarl.

In its creation of Percy, the obnoxious lapdog of the wicked governor of Jamestown, “Pocahontas” depicts the Pug as the embodiment of imperialism: cruel, arrogant, avaricious and corrupt. Percy combines the worst features of Cujo and Oscar Wilde. That is a slanderous representation of the Pug’s ethics and its role in history. The Pug is the most politically correct of pets, with a pedigree of liberal causes.

A Pug could hardly be a symbol of western imperialism since it happens to be Chinese. As early as 600 B.C. the Chinese aristocracy decided that Pugs made better pets than entrees. With the advent of Buddhism, the Pug also acquired a reputation for sanctity: its affable stupor was regarded as a model of Zen contemplation. Pugs often were employed as the guard pet of temples; in a culture of silk garments, a shedding dog might be a deterrent.

The encrouching Europeans of the 16th century should have appreciated the Pug. Its small size and good nature accommodated theft. Yet, the Spaniards and the Portuguese showed terrified restraint. The customs officials of the Ming Dynasty could not have been more intimidating than the Aztecs.

This raises the question: Was the Pug Anti-Catholic? One could never be too paranoid in the Age of Torquemada and Philip II. No flammable person would want to risk the curiosity of the Inquisition by importing a furry avatar of Buddha. The Pug evidently was not permitted in Iberia unless it first converted to a Saint Bernard.

Dutch mariners may not have recognized the Pug as a fellow Protestant, but they clearly saw a market for the ecumenical charmer. One merchant, hopeful for future favors or mindful of past offenses, presented one of these rare oriental dogs to Prince William of Orange. That little bribe, named Pompey, was to save William and the Netherlands.

Through a web of political marriages in the early 16th century, the Spanish royal family got the Hapsburg chin and the Low Countries. Ferdinand, Isabella and Charles V could keep themselves busy in Spain, burning anyone with a suspicious reluctance to pork; but the tax revenues from the Netherlands would justify a little myopia toward Calvinism. Philip II, however, “would rather rule over a desert than a land full of heretics.” Since the Dutch did not appreciate being kindling, they rose in a rebellion led by William of Orange.

“Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” This does not remotely refer to the Pug, but Prince William insisted on taking Pompey along on campaigns. It was an act of self-indulgence, but so is survival; and Pompey proved a better bodyguard than the Dutch army. One night in 1572, a troupe of assassins eluded the Dutch sentries but not Pompey.

In all probability, the Pug regarded the conspirators as an audience rather than a threat, but his snorts and capers awakened William to the danger. The Prince of Orange survived and, with him, Dutch independence. Without his leadership, the Netherlands might have been reduced to being the northern parish of Belgium. Neither the Prince nor his descendants forgot their debt to Pompey: the Pug became the official dog of the House of Orange and was conferred an orange collar.

Since the English were more interested in robbing the Spaniards rather than the Chinese, there were no Pugs in England (and certainly not in Jamestown) during Pocahantas’ lifetime. The first Pugs crossed the Channel in 1688, when William III of the Netherlands became William III of England. He had been hired by Parliament to replace his uncle and father-in-law, James II, who had been ousted for being too obnoxious and too Catholic. This is remembered as the Glorious Revolution, which established the constitutional supremacy of a mean and bigoted parliament over a mean and bigoted king.

William III proved just as dislikable and not as attractive as his predecessor, but he was impeccably Protestant. Furthermore, he did not need looks or charm; his Pugs provided that. The Pugs became popular as both a loyalty oath and a fashion statement.

Europe’s intellectuals began to regard the English as a race of idiot savants, whose savoir was government. Mindful of royal censors and dungeons, they did not dare openly to espouse the English political system, but owning a Pug was a discreet way of admiring English “fashion.” The Pug developed subversive popularity as an emblem of the Enlightenment. A Masonic Lodge in southern Germany was called the Order of the Pug. In the leading salons of Paris, Pugs associated with Voltaire and Diderot, and shared mistresses with Ben Franklin.

By the mid-19th century, the Pug had lived down any blame for the French Revolution as well as its resemblance to Napoleon. The Pug arrived in America after the Civil War, imported by a Nouveau Riche in need of status symbols. In the Victorian scheme of things, the Pug served as a consolation prize for slighted wives, bored mistresses, ignored children or anyone with a trust fund instead of a life.

Today, guilt by association has left the impression that the Pug is a decadent little twit. The Duke of Windsor certainly was, but his Pugs were not. Of course, Pugs love comfort but that is not a Fascist tendency. Even if a Pug did prefer to chew Mussolini‘s Gucci rather than Mao‘s sandals, who wouldn’t? The Pug’s politics should be judged by his character. Since the Pug is good-natured, naive, defenseless and ineffectual, it obviously is a Liberal.

Veterans’ Day at the Movies

Posted in General, On This Day on November 11th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

November 11, 1918:  Western Civilization gave itself a slight respite from self-destruction.

The Armistice lasted 20 years, allowing sufficient time for the toddlers of 1918 to grow into their boots and helmets. (And during that respite, corporals and sergeants promoted themselves to Fuhrers and Duces.)

We Americans did actually win the First World War simply because we still had a breathing generation of draft age men and we showed up in France at the right moment. Had the Chinese sent one million men to France in 1918, they could have won the war, too. Timing is everything.

America was barely involved in World War I. We entered the War in 1917, missing all the excitement of Gallipoli, the Somme and Verdun. More doughboys died from influenza than Krupp munitions. Our chief casualties may have been Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, who were constantly escaping “a fate worse than death” from the Hunnish clutches (or whatever the pertinent organ) of Erich von Stroiheim in Hollywood’s depictions of the War. (It should be noted that in her long film career Miss Gish was also nearly raped during the French Revolution and the American Civil War.) Given our limited participation in the Great War, we commemorate November 11 as a catch-all day for all of our Veterans.

However if you really want to honor the veterans of the most futile war in history, you can do so any day on Turner Classic Movies. Just turn on a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood and look at the British actors. To a man, they served in a far more harrowing theater than all the terrors of working with Bette Davis. Many of them were left scarred. Herbert Marshall had the unique distinction of being a leading man with a wooden leg. Claude Raines was blind in one eye. When you see Ronald Colman’s fencing in “The Prisoner of Zenda” you wouldn’t know that he had a kneecap shot off. Lieutenant Nigel Bruce was machine-gunned in the buttocks; that is not the kind of wound that gets the Victoria Cross. If Leslie Howard seemed introspective and other-worldly, shellshock can do that. In fact, to save time, let me recite the British actors who somehow avoided being maimed in France. Well, Leo G. Carroll was wounded in the Middle East; at least, he had that originality. And Captain Basil Rathbone, decorated for courage, really should have been awarded for remarkable luck: not a scratch!

The most veteran of the British veterans was Donald Crisp, the kindly father figure in so many films of the Thirties and Forties. (He did have an incestuous interest in Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms”; but you know, I am starting to have my suspicions about Miss Gish. Did the woman gargle pheromones?) Crisp fought in the Boer War and then served again in the Great War.

If you want to see a microcosm of British history, watch the 1940 production of “Pride and Prejudice.” The middle-aged actors–Edmund Gwenn and Melville Cooper– had served in the Great War. The younger members of the cast–Laurence Olivier and Bruce Lester–were to have their turn. The Armistice was about to end.

And Erich von Stroiheim would threaten a new generation of actresses.

Fool Russians Where Engels Feared To Tread

Posted in General, On This Day on November 7th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

November 7, 1917:  One Day That Shook the World (John Reed padded the rest)

Lenin dice Russia darkUnder the tsars, the Russian people were oppressed by good-looking imbeciles with flawless table manners. Vladimir Lenin envisioned a new world in which tyranny would be based on pathology rather than pedigree. However, Russia was not ready for communism during the first decade of the century.

According to Karl Marx, the Revolution would occur in an advanced industrialized society in which the workers starved but read Hegel. In the early 20th century, Russia was still perfecting feudalism. Lenin became resigned to a life in exile, playing chess in Switzerland.

In 1914, after decades of extravagant militarism, the European powers surprised themselves by having a war. To protect Serbia from Austria, Russia went to war with Germany. (To protect Austria, Germany attacked Belgium. If anyone had possessed a sense of direction, it wouldn’t have been a world war.)

Russia couldn’t even supply all of its soldiers with rifles. In 1915, 25% of the Russian troops at the front were unarmed; they had to wait to inherit the guns of dead soldiers. At least the tsarist government demonstrated even-handed incompetence by neglecting civilians. The transportation system broke down, and the cities went without food and fuel.

By March 1917, the civilians were rioting and the soldiers mutinying.  Tsar Nicholas II was at the front “inspiring” the troops. His imperious majesty would have been safer with the Germans. He found himself under arrest and confronted with a delegation of government officials demanding his abdication.

Thus, a new and liberal government came to power in Russia. All those cultured, sensitive souls from Chekhov plays were running the country. This provisional government commanded the fervent support of millions; unfortunately, none of them were in Russia. What is freedom of the press to a nation of illiterates? The provisional government inherited chaos and chose to perpetuate it. Although the world war had toppled the monarchy, the new government intended to keep Russia in the carnage. The Russian masses were ready for any leader or ideology that ended the war, and Lenin took this as his opportunity.

In late March 1917, Lenin walked into the German consulate in Zurich and offered to overthrow the Russian government. He must have learned the word “chutzpah” from Leon Trotsky. Lenin peddled the Bolshevik Revolution essentially as an initial public offering. If Germany provided him with the start-up capital for his venture, he would seize control of Russia and withdraw it from the war. Germany could then shift its eastern army to France and, with that additional million men, bludgeon its way to Paris and victory.

Though Lenin’s scheme was preposterous, the Germans were receptive to gruesome ideas. The Second Reich had already pioneered submarine warfare and poison gas, so it was willing to invest in proletarian uprisings. Germany provided the train and traveling expenses for Lenin and his cadre of Bolshevik exiles. They arrived in Russia in April 1917; they were in control by November.  Today is the anniversary of their coup.

There was no one to defend democracy in Russia. Russian liberals made excellent novelists, but their idea of defense against a Bolshevik onslaught was to make a sarcastic remark in French.   The Bolsheviks’ seizure of Petrograd was so boringly bloodless that Soviet film makers had to concoct battle scenes for the sake of drama.  Most of the liberals survived the revolution (even Lenin thought that they were too amusing to kill) and ended up as tenured professors at Ivy League schools.

Lenin had promised peace to Russia. Indeed, the Russian army assumed that a promise was as good as a treaty; the soldiers began an impromptu retreat home. Germany, however, was not ready for peace. While it had achieved victory in the East for the price of Lenin’s train fare, Germany now wanted more for its investment. The Second Reich demanded control of Poland, the Baltic States, Finland and the Ukraine. Russia would lose 27% of her arable land and 73% of her coal fields. For all practical purposes, the Baltic Sea now would be a tributary of the Rhine. Lenin had no choice but to capitulate. An unopposed German army can be very persuasive.

Fortunately for Lenin, Germany never collected on the debt. There still was a Western Front, and Germany’s first encounter with Captain George Patton and an American army would be the precursor for the main event. While Germany was whimpering about the Treaty of Versailles, it was in no position to enforce its juice loan to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Germany might have taken some satisfaction from subsidizing the Bolshevik state. After all, someone had to threaten Western civilization, and if it couldn’t be Germany, why not the Soviet Union?


Comicsar Yevgeny

The Rite to Vote

Posted in English Stew, General on November 4th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Voting has always been an act of faith. In ancient Rome, a votum was a religious vow. If you were underfoot a Carthaginan elephant or had encountered Caligula in one of his zany moods, you could promise the Gods a few sacrificed sheep in exchange for your survival. Those who actually kept their promises were said to be “devout” or “devoted.” By the Middle Ages, Europe’s theology had changed but the definition of votum had not. People were still eager to bargain with Heaven. To avoid the bubonic plague, you too might vow not to beat the serfs for a month.

Votum acquired its political character in 15th century Scotland. That rugged, hardscrabble land fostered an independent, feisty spirit that would not accommodate the king’s attempts to govern. The hapless monarch had only as much power as his quarrelsome nobles begrudged him. To enact any legislation or to organize a raid on England, his majesty had to wheedle a consensus from his lairds and clan chieftains.

Of course, even a tenuous government like Scotland’s had bureaucrats, and someone was recording the proceedings of the royal council. That scribe wanted a term to describe the machinations of arriving at a political decision. Demonstrating his erudition, he naturally chose a Latin word: votum. Unfortunately, it was the wrong one. The Latin word for vote is suffragium. Perhaps the Scottish bureaucrat thought that “votum” meant voice, which actually is “vox” in Latin. His error became the common term in Scotland.

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth of England died. Her reign was glorious, but a Virgin Queen is bad for a dynasty. She was succeeded by her cousin James, the King of Scotland. The Stuarts were long used to groveling to nobles, but they were not prepared to negotiate with a Parliament full of commoners. The Stuarts obviously felt that they had more divine rights than the Tudors did. Rather than face the demands and criticism of Parliament, James I decided to avoid it; he simply wouldn’t call it into session. Of course, he couldn’t raise revenues and the Crown verged on bankruptcy, but James was a miser by nature. His son and successor, Charles I, had more expenses-wars, a French wife and all those van Dyke paintings-so he called Parliament and attempted to bully it. If you don’t know the outcome, you could read his autopsy report.

Considering the Stuarts’ hostility to Parliament, it is ironic that the Scots introduced the “vote” to England. In its political context, the word was unknown. (In its religious context, the word had become rather risky since Henry VIII.) The Parliament had been founded in 1265 and, for more than three centuries, this assembly of gentry, clergy and burghers had been using the correct Latin terms for their legislative decisions. The noun was “suffrage”. The verb was “suffragate.” This was not just legal jargon. The words were in the English vernacular. In Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”, the title character addresses the people of Rome, “I ask your voices and your suffrages.”

However, when the English finally heard the word “vote”, they appreciated its succinct brevity. It was easier to say than “suffragate,” a word now mercifully obsolete. The term “suffrage” has survived but with a more limited meaning: the right to vote. A century ago, some justifiably indignant women made excellent use of the word. As for the word “vote”, it is now purely secular. Yet, it still retains some trace of its origins. All too often, the voter is confronted with a choice of idols, each promising miracles.