One of the most recognizable symbols of British influence abroad is the Commonwealth of Nations. While many may be familiar with the organization itself, which currently boasts 53 independent nations and unites people with common language, history, culture, and values, the word itself is widely used. In addition to the British Commonwealth, there is the Commonwealth of Independent States, consisting of former Soviet Republics. Furthermore, some countries have designated themselves commonwealths, such as Australia and the Bahamas, and even some US states are officially commonwealths, like Virginia and Massachusetts. Obviously, the term has been widely used, but what about the word commonwealth itself? What does it mean and where does it come from? Since Commonwealth Day was this week, let’s give this word some closer examination.
Commonwealth first entered the English language in the late 15th century as a combination of the words “common” and “wealth,” meaning that something is for the good of the public/everyone in a certain area. Interestingly, the first recognizable and recorded commonwealth was in Iceland from ca. 10th- 13th century- several hundred years before the word entered English. However, in instances like this as well as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the word can also be interpreted as meaning free/democratic association. The first time that the word was actually applied to a British context was in the mid-17th century, when, after the Second English Civil War, the Rump Parliament adopted “An Act declaring England to be a Commonwealth.”
In usage, we can see this multitude of meanings. The first known written usage comes from John Hardyng ca. 1465 who writes in his Chronicle that a man “did the commonwealth sustain,” representing the public good. Little over a century later, in 1583 in Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum, the meaning of a cohesive state is demonstrated: “A common wealth is called a society..of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord… among themselves.” The Parliamentarian usage of the word commonwealth can be found on numerous government documents of the Interregnum period. Finally, since we have celebrated the Commonwealth Day this week, perhaps the most applicable quote comes from the respected leader and statesman Jan Christiaan Smuts, who, in 1917, wrote that, “The British Empire is much more than a State… We are a system..of nations and states..who govern themselves, who have been evolved on the principles of your constitutional system, now almost independent states, and who belong to this group, to this community of nations, which I prefer to call the British Commonwealth of nations.”