English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Lobbies where lobbyists lobby

Q: I assume that the verb “lobby,” meaning to try to influence politicians, is related to the noun “lobby,” a room near an entrance. Can you tell us a little about the history of the two words, and how they’re connected?

A: Yes, the noun and the verb “lobby” are related. When the verb showed up in the 1830s, it meant to hang out in the lobby of a legislative building with the aim of influencing the voting.

When “lobby” first appeared in this sense, it was an intransitive verb—that is, it didn’t need an object to make sense. By the mid-1800s, it was being used transitively—that is, with an object.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Oct. 6, 1837, issue of the Cleveland (Ohio) Herald:

“Gen. Bronson … spent a considerable portion of the last winter in Columbus, lobbying to procure the establishment of a Bank at Ohio City.”

The OED’s first transitive example is from an 1850 book by Sir Charles Lyell, an English geologist, about his travels in North America:

“A disappointed place-hunter, who had been lobbying the Houses of Legislature in vain for the whole session.”

The use of “lobbying” as a noun (a gerund is a verbal noun) showed up in an entry for the verb “lobby” in an 1855 supplement to The Imperial Dictionary, edited by John Ogilvie.

Here’s a more interesting OED example from the Jan. 6, 1862, issue of the Times (London): “ ‘Lobbying’ as it is termed, is a well known institution at Washington.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the guy doing all that lobbying is from the January 1863  issue of the Cornhill Magazine: “A Representative listening to a lobbyist.”

The latest cite is from Epitaph for a Lobbyist, a 1974 mystery by R. B. Dominic (pen name of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, who also wrote as Emma Lathen): “I don’t like high-powered lobbyists and their greasy favors.”

But let’s go back to the place where all this started. When the noun “lobby” appeared in the 1500s, it referred to a covered walk or cloister in a monastery.

The OED’s earliest (and only) example of this sense is from Thomas Becon’s 1553 book, The Relikes of Rome: “Our Recluses neuer come out of their lobbeis, sincke or swimme the people.”

By the late 1500s, the noun was being used to mean a corridor with one or more apartments in a building or a waiting area in a hall or theater.

Polonius uses the word in that sense in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written around 1600: “You know, sometimes he walkes foure houres together / Heere in the Lobby.

The noun “lobby” took on a political sense in 17th-century England, when it was used to mean the entrance hall in the House of Commons—a place where MPs could speak with members of the public.

Here’s a 1640 example from the Historical Collections, a series of works by the English historian John Rushworth:

“The outward Room of the Commons House, called the Lobby … where the Cryer of the Chancery first made Proclamation in the King’s name.”

In the 1800s, according to the OED, the noun took on another political sense in the US: “the persons who frequent the lobby of the house of legislature for the purpose of influencing its members in their official action.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense is from a Feb. 2, 1808, debate in Congress: “If we move to Philadelphia we shall have a commanding lobby.”

In the mid-20th century, the OED says, the noun took on yet another political sense: “a business, cause, or principle supported by a group of people; the group of persons supporting such an interest.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the July 26, 1952, issue of the Economist: “American … interests have maintained their effective lobby against the project.” (The reference is to the St. Lawrence Seaway.)

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