Party Politics and Etymology

“Getting back to our wedding reception…” Pat started.

“You guys had a party and we weren’t invited?” Lee fumed.

Guys, I thought. Had Lee revealed something? No. “You guys” doesn’t indicate gender.

“Of course not,” Chris said. “The party is just in the planning stages. We want to do it right.”

“So, we’re OK calling it a celebration,” Pat said, “but what about party?  You hear so much about party politics and partisanship now.”

“You got that right!” said Aeron.

“We want a party that brings people together,” Pat went on, “not the warring factions, splitting into parts party. How did the word get such contradictory meanings?”

“Well, party came into English in the 12th century from Anglo-Norman partie, meaning part, in all the various senses: part of a larger unit, part of the body, part of a larger space, side, faction, part of a larger group of people, territory, country. By 1248 it was used to mean ‘one who argues against something.’”

mcconnell & reid

“Huh! I guess the ‘party of No’ goes back farther than we thought,” Chris said.

“By 1400,” I continued, “it meant ‘a side in a battle, dispute or lawsuit.’”

“Not very convivial,” said Lee.

“By the late 17th century, you’ve got your political parties,” I told them. “And in a 1791 edition of Common Sense, Thomas Paine spoke of ‘the narrow and crabby spirit of a despairing political party.’”
“Well said, Tommy!” Aeron pounded the table.


A Hunting Party with the Sultan. Jean Baptiste Vanmour [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“But parties weren’t always contentious,” I said, scanning farther down the OED entry. “In the late 1300s party could also mean a group of people, especially one formed temporarily to engage in a shared activity, like a hunting party or a search party. By the 1500s party could mean a game or match, especially in relation to card games.”

“Getting warmer,” Pat said.

“And by the early 18th century, party was used to mean ‘a social gathering, especially of invited guests at a person’s house, typically involving eating, drinking, and entertainment.’”
“All right, Lexie! You nailed it!” Pat said. “From clashing swords to clinking glasses all in the same day!”

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