Here in Canada, we are coming to the end of a federal election. Voting day is October 21. Only five more days of this gong show (thank heavens).
The election period began several weeks ago with the dropping of the writ. Since elections are often called “races,” I’ve long had this image of the leaders of the federal parties lined up at the starting gate, in classic sprinting crouch, waiting for someone to “drop the writ” that starts the race and for the crowd to scream, “And they’re off!”
What is a “writ?” And why is it “dropped?”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “writ” as any written document – think “Holy Writ” to refer to scripture. But “writ” in the case of elections has a specific legal definition: “A written command, precept or order issued by a court in the name of a sovereign, state or other competent legal authority, directing or enjoining the person or persons to whom it is addressed to do or to refrain from doing some act specified therein.” This meaning has a long history – the OED cites a usage dating to 1450.
Okay, so it’s a written document. But why is it “dropped?”
Etymologists (linguists who study the origin of words) say it is an elision of the two words “draw up.” Say “draw up” quickly enough and what you hear is “drop.”
It’s all rather prosaic. The prime minister goes to the Governor-General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) and asks permission to dissolve Parliament and to draw up (“drop”) the writ(ten document) that begins the election period.
I prefer my image of the leaders crouched at the starting gate.
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Mud-slinging is a time-honoured tradition in elections. One of the nastiest was the Saskatchewan provincial election of 1929 when language, religion and schools were wrapped up into one ugly package, all aided and abetted by the Ku Klux Klan. Read how my grandmother, Addie Hanna, remembered it in Chapter 30 of “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead. Here’s a snippit:
“Like I said, the campaign was nasty. Mr. Gardiner accused the Conservatives of being in bed with the Klan. Mr. Anderson accused the Liberals of being funded by the Catholics. Klansmen call Mr. Gardiner “Pope Gardiner the First.” Mr. Gardiner replied he was a committed Protestant in good standing in his church and community.
The Daily Star wrote that the government was trying to turn Saskatchewan into a second Quebec by moving 125,000 French Canadians into Saskatchewan. The Morning Leader said the only reason the Conservatives were upset about bringing French Canadians here is because they are mostly Grits and that would strengthen the Liberal vote in the west.
The Klan and the Conservatives said that Saskatchewan schools were dominated by the Catholics. The Liberals said that was balderdash, that there were only a very few Catholic schools in the province.”
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