In a word: plebiscite

June 04, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:

Last year in Maryland, petition drives succeeded in putting on the ballot proposals to repeal laws passed by the General Assembly, including legalization of same-sex marriage. The repeal efforts failed. This year, efforts to reverse the abolition of the death penalty and restrictions on firearms failed to garner enough signatures to get repeals on the ballot. The editorial board of The Baltimore Sun opines today that fears among the state's Democratic establishment that referendum petitions would send us down the road to government by plebiscite were therefore unfounded.
A plebiscite (pronounced PLEB-uh-site) is a vote in which the entire electorate is invited to accept or reject a proposal. The Latin original of the word, plebiscitum, was a law enacted by the plebeians' assembly, the plebeians being the common citizens, distinguished from the aristocratic class, the patricians. The Latin word combines pleb, "the common people" and scitum, "decree," from sciscere, "to vote for."  
Example: In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce offers a characteristically cynical definition: "Plebiscite, n. A popular vote to ascertain the will of the sovereign."
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