Today marks the culmination of the U.S. presidential campaign that started approximately 19 months ago. Regardless of whether you are excited to see who wins, fascinated by all of the twists and turns this election has taken, or just glad that it will finally be over, today is when “the rubber meets the road” and the votes finally get counted. Though we will either be sharing congratulations or commiserations with each other by Wednesday, today gives the opportunity to look a little deeper at the coveted word in the centre of all of this.
While we may have come to think of it as exclusively meaning the head of state of a country, such as with the United States and Russia, the word president, in the most general sense, simply means the chosen leader of a body of persons. The word itself comes from the Old French president, which comes from the Latin praesidens. Moreover, the past participle form of the word, praesidere, gives us the action of ‘acting as head or chief.’
Initially, our word was first used in the Wycliffite Bible of the early 1380s to denote the appointed governor/representative of a specific area, from 3 Edras: “And there came many of the priests, and of deacons, and of presidents after the towns, to the elders that had seen the rather house.” Soon after, the title also started being applied to those presiding over religious and academic associations: circa 1410, the Polychronicon at St. John’s, Cambridge University, suggests that “Elfworde, bishop of London…would have been president at Evesham,” and the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society mention in 1448 that: “This indenture made..between master Andrew Dokett, president of the Queen college of Saint Margret and Saint Barnard..and John Veyse.” By the late 1700s, the term was being applied to the head of a company or business entity and, first mentioned in 1782, the term was applied for the first time to a United States government representative, with the Pennsylvania Gazette writing that: “On Monday last the Hon. Elias Boudinot, Esq; was elected President of the United States in Congress assembled.” (You thought it was going to be Washington, didn’t you?)
Though being a U.S. president comes with a lot of prestige and exclusivity – beginning with the first U.S. presidential election in 1788-89, only 44 people have held the position – it also means the stress of attempting to lead a diverse nation that often fails to agree on things and the pitfall of being blamed whenever something goes wrong. Surprisingly, for such a responsible position, it is also difficult to get people to vote: though the 2008 election has the largest vote ever, with 131 million total votes, the turnout was only 58.2%; furthermore, the last U.S. presidential election to get a turnout of over 60% was in 1968!
So, if you are a U.S. citizen, now that you have been armed with the knowledge of this important word and have also been bombarded with campaign literature, use your civic right and duty to cast a vote for president.