Sunday, September 30, 2012


I was watching a segment of Michael Sandel's Justice the other night and heard him describe some hypothetical candidate going "out on the hustings". It's a nice word, hustings, and in context, I thought I knew what it meant. It's basically going out and meeting the public and speechifying in front of them. Right? I think of a small rural or provincial makeshift stage for the candidate.

But what are hustings, exactly? For some reason I have always imagined hustings as a temporary stage that wear a sort of dry corn husk as a skirt. This can't be right, however, and before I reveal too much more of my thinking by process of association method, I think we had better press on...


Well, the stage or platform is right, the corn husks, not surprisingly, are wrong. According to Charles Dickens World (where I also got the picture):

The hustings were temporary wooden platforms, constructed in the street, from which parliamentary hopefuls were nominated, presented to the crowd and made their election speeches. Before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, a show of hands was sufficient to give a candidate a majority. If that proved inconclusive a public ballot was called for.

"Husting" comes to us from the Scandinavians, probably Old Norse, via the Brits. The husting was originally the Old Norse husthing (or really húsþing) with the second "h" sound getting lost somewhere in the transition. It meant "house-thing". "Thing" is one of those words that has a lot greater range and depth than might first appear. It isn't just about objects or a way to talk about something imprecisely ("that thing over there"). It originally had to do with a meeting or assembly. So a house-thing was either a meeting held in a house, or a meeting of the household of the clan chief--I've seen both explanations. The term survives in the Folleting of Denmark, the Althing (Alþingi) of Iceland, and the Storting of Norway, all of which are the assembly houses or parliaments of their individual countries. So when someone puts you off by saying, "I've got a thing", you can be pretty sure they're secretly a pretty high up Nordic official in disguise. (I'm kidding.)

Stortinget, Norway
After the British took over the idea, they eventualy began to use "hustings court" as a name for the kinds of courts set up to deal with the civil matters of a community. In London, the court was presided over by the Lord Mayor and was held in the Guildhall. Apparently this court was held on a platform, and by 1719,  the sense of hustings as a platform for political speeches had taken hold.

Modern Day Guildhall, London
I was surprised to learn that hustings courts made their way over to the U.S. as well, notably in Viriginia. But that also there was a tradition of hustings courts in parts of the Midwest, where they were set up as temporary courts in remote regions. (In addition to the usual suspects, such as Wikipedia and the Online Etymology Dictionary, I'm gathering a lot of this information from a very concise article at Random House's The Maven's Word Of the Day, which as a Random House project now seems to be defunct.)

It had never occurred to me before, but the more American term, stump speech, bears a relationship to "on the hustings". Of course, in America it was more expedient to find the nearest stump than to take time to build a platform. But the impulse of the politician is everywhere the same--get up on top of something where people can see (and especially hear) you.

Stump Speaking, by George Caleb Bingham 1853-54


  1. I've never heard this word before. Hustings sounds very quaintly British -- I might like to name a bull dog that.

  2. Funny--I assumed you watched the same Masterpiece Theatre shows that I did. Or maybe I know it from Trollope.

  3. Hustings..funny i was thinking about that the other day as it is a word commonly used in fact i met an acquaintance down the street the other day who was on the hustings, rallying support for a local political issue..
    well done...i always liked the word but was just too lazy to look it up :)

  4. Glad to be of service, Dan. I guess Australia's system of government is closer to the English one. I don't know that it's that familiar here, although it was an American show that made me think about it again. True, the show was from Harvard, but I was pleased to learn it has an American usage at least in terms of courts.