The Grammarphobia Blog

A political groundswell

Q: In The Heir of Redclyffe, an 1853 novel, Charlotte M. Yonge describes a “ground-swell” (she hyphenates it) as “a continuous low moan, or roar, far, far away.” How did it become a political term?

A: When the word showed up in the early 19th century, it referred to a “deep swell or heavy rolling of the sea, the result of a distant storm or seismic disturbance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the term was also used figuratively “with reference to mental or political agitation,” the dictionary says, though it doesn’t have any political examples.

In fact, the earliest citation in the OED is a figurative usage from Zapolya: A Christmas Tale (1817), a verse play by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “It is the ground-swell of a teeming instinct.”

The dictionary’s first literal example is from The Heart of Midlothian (1818), the seventh of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels: “The agitation of the waters, called by sailors the ground-swell.”

Interestingly, this literal example was used to describe the agitated state of a crowd. (The novel was originally published as Tales of My Landlord, under the pseudonym Jedediah Cleishbotham.)

By the way, the OED uses a hyphen for “groundswell,” but the dictionary’s entry hasn’t been fully updated. Standard dictionaries now list the term as one word.

Although Oxford doesn’t have any citations for “groundswell” used politically, perhaps the most common sense today, we’ve found several from the 19th century.

For example, a July 12, 1872, headline in the New York Herald sums up reaction to the nomination of Horace Greeley as the Democratic candidate for president as “The Groundswell After the Political Storm at Baltimore.”

And the Aug. 25, 1898, issue of the Minneapolis Journal has this headline on page one: “A GROUNDSWELL / What Senator Davis Predicts for the Republican Party. / Full Control of the Senate and House Is Anticipated.”

Finally, a June 17, 1902, editorial in the Morning Herald (Lexington, KY) comments on “a ground-swell of dissatisfaction against the system” for managing the state’s charitable institutions.

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