Q: The words “vote” and “veto” seem so similar, yet opposite. One involves the making of choices, the other the blocking of choices. Do these words have a common origin?
A: Despite their resemblance, “vote” and “veto” are not related etymologically, and they aren’t really opposites. They’re descended from different Latin verbs meaning, respectively, to vow (vovere) and to forbid (vetare).
We’ll start with “vote,” the older of the two words.
It first entered English as a noun in the 15th century, borrowed directly from votum, a Latin noun derived from the verb vovere. The classical Latin noun meant a vow or offering to a god, but in post-classical times it came to mean a choice or a decision.
In English, the noun “vote” has had its choosing or deciding senses from the start. (At various times in the past, both noun and verb have also had meanings related to vowing or pledging, but those are now obsolete.)
The earliest recorded meaning of the noun “vote,” dating from the mid-1400s, was a “formal statement of opinion by a member of a deliberative body on a matter under discussion,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary’s oldest citation, in Scots English, is from The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland (1458): “haifande wotis in the deliverance of causis” (“having votes in the deciding of causes”).
All the other meanings of the noun “vote”—a collective choice, an individual’s selection of a candidate, a decision by ballot or show of hands, and so on—developed steadily from the late 1400s onward.
The verb “vote” in the political sense emerged a century after the noun, and it also appeared first in Scots English. Here’s the OED definition: “to give or register a vote; to exercise the right of suffrage; to express a choice or preference by ballot or other approved means.” And this is the dictionary’s earliest example:
“swa that monsieur Desse … with the rest off capitainis and gentilmen woittit ilk ane for ther awyn part” (“so that Monsieur Dessé … with the other captains and gentlemen voted every one according to their duty”). From a Feb. 20, 1549, letter by the Scottish clergyman Alexander Gordon to Scotland’s Queen Dowager, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.
(A final note on “vote” before we move on to “veto.” The defunct “vow” senses of “vote” have been replaced by the word “vow.” But old senses related to prayers and vows live on in the related words “devote,” “devotion,” “devoted,” and “devout.” The “de-” is not a negative prefix but means “from.”)
The word “veto,” meanwhile, still echoes what it meant to the Romans. In classical Latin, veto meant “I forbid”; it was the first-person singular present form of the verb vetare (to forbid). As the OED explains, veto was “the word by which the Roman tribunes of the people opposed measures of the Senate or actions of the magistrates.”
The Latin expression veto was borrowed directly into English as the noun “veto” in the 17th century. And the noun’s original English meaning hasn’t changed. This is the OED definition:
“A prohibition having as its object or result the prevention of an act; an instance of rejecting, banning, or blocking an action, proposal, etc. Also: the power to prevent or check action in this way.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from William Mure’s True Crucifixe (1629): “Hee who doth exalt Himselfe to raigne … Dare gainst this Law most impudently stand, And God’s great Veto boldly counter-mand.”
A more specific meaning of the noun soon emerged, and it too is still alive today—the rejection of a legislative or other political measure, as in a presidential “veto.”
The noun in this sense was first recorded in a sermon by a Church of England clergyman, Anthony Farindon, sometime before 1658: “There is a Law staring in our face, like a Tribune with his Veto, to forbid us.”
As for the verb “veto,” it was formed within English in the 18th century, simply by the conversion of the noun into a verb. It’s defined in the OED as “to put a veto on (a legislative or political measure); to stop or block by exercising a veto.”
Oxford’s earliest example: “Letters for degrees (including D.D. for Potter) read in Convocation, but vetoed by the Proctors because they had not been previously acquainted with the contents.” We’ve expanded the citation, from a 1706 letter by the antiquary and diarist Thomas Hearne.
Although “vote” and “veto” aren’t etymologically related, over time they’ve become political bedfellows.
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