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Am I right in believing that the origin of the word suffrage is in the Latin meaning (to vote) rather than the medieval relationship to prayer?


  • Well yes, @AuntyPodes, but so what? We tend to place far too much importance on the concept of origin.

    If you just want to say 'Isn't that interesting?' then fine. But that doesn't make the medieval relationship to prayer unimportant irrelevant or irrelevant to the etymology.

    According to the OED, the word suffrage entered English twice. Both times it was from Latin, but from two different types of Latin.

    • One type is the literary standard version we know from Classical authors. It disappeared as a spoken language after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but was always available to scholars.

    • The other type was the written and spoken language of the Church — i.e. the Medieval Western Church under the Popes of Rome.

    In the latter version, the word suffragium had the meaning 'intercessionary prayer', and so various languages adopted the word with that meaning. In England, John Wycliffe used the form suffrage in c1380. That spelling had been used in Old French from the previous century, so it's not clear whether his direct or indirect source was French or Church Latin.

    Two centuries later (a1525), Thomas More used the word with something of its Classical Latin meaning. (He may have been the originator, or he may have been copying someone else; there's no way of knowing.) He used suffrage to mean a pebble used for voting and the vote itself.

    By the end of the century Shakespeare was using suffrages to mean 'votes' (1594), and other writers were using suffrage to mean 'an expression of approval', or simply 'approval'.

    With More and Shakespeare, we're into the Renaissance, when increasingly more educated men (and some women) were familiar with Classical Latin. So the development of the word suffrage drew on that familiarity. But with the Reformation, English readers writers and speakers increasingly lost familiarity with Church Latin and the terminology of Catholic practice, and the senses based on that familiarity declined.

    An interesting survival is the Book of Common Prayer, dating from 1662, which was basically a translation from a Latin service book — no doubt with theological modifications. The litanies of prayers for the Monarch etc kept the old name of suffrages. And, of course, theologians and historians continued to use the term well into the nineteenth century.

    The More/Shakespeare suffrage is such a sharp transition that it prompts the question; Is it the same word? Would More have used that spelling if an there wasn't already an English word spelled suffrage? The OED answer is to treat it as one word with essentially one spelling, which I think makes sense.

    The modern idea of 'casting a vote' appears in known texts in 1665 in the phrase right of suffrage. A century later, in the US Constitution of 1792, suffrage alone was used to mean 'right of suffrage'. This meaning seems to have spread quickly — leading to modern phrases such as female suffrage, adult suffrage. The term universal suffrage was invented as early as 1798, but the writer seems to have seen it as a quirky experiment, judging by the spelling Univers–al Suffrage.

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