Wednesday, February 24, 2021


I imagine that, reading the subject line of this post, you're expecting some kind of discussion of the filibuster process, which we are all hearing so much about at the moment. And probably I should at least find a good definition of the filibuster as it is currently used. But in fact I was merely attracted by the word itself. It's really a rather jolly sounding word, but I couldn't even make a guess as to where it came from. It doesn't sound exactly Latinate, though if the original was something like "filibustrum'" or "filibustrate" that would make a bit of sense. When I delved into its etymology, though, I found something quite a bit more interesting. 

But first, a brief, basic definition of its current usage. According to the U.S. Senate itself (and they have a pretty cool glossary that anyone can look up at their website), "filibuster" is not a formal term. It simply means any attempt to block or delay a piece of legislation by debating it at length, or putting forth a lot of motions or obstructing its progress in any way one can think up. Wikipedia tells how the filibuster became theoretically possible in 1806 when an earlier rule for ending debate had been abandoned, but it wasn't actually exploited until 1837. So it didn't start out as a deliberately thought out strategy, but  as an accidental consequence of another Senate ruling. 

Senator Huey Long, famous filibusterer

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that "filibuster" is derived from a word first written down in English in the 1580s. A flibutor was a pirate, particularly the kind of pirate that was raiding the Spanish colonies of the West Indies at the time. These weren't people from just one country--there were Dutch, English, French and maybe other nationalities preying on these islands. It's thought that the original word was the Dutch vrijbueter, which  became filibustero in Spanish and fribustier and later flibustier in French. It also came into the English language by another path as "freebooter," which is one of those weird connections that I love. 

A Buccaneer of the Caribbean by Howard Pyle

The British adopted the term flibutor in 1684, but American English didn't really find a use for the term until later, when it was used to refer to lawless military adventurers from the U.S. aiming to overthrow Central American governments. The event in which William Walker, who tried to overthrow both Mexican Sonora and Nicaragua and briefly became president of the latter is actually called the Filibuster War (or, alternatively, the Walker Affair). 

William Walker, filibuster and brief president of Nicaragua

 I feel fine about swiping the following directly from the Online Etymology Dictionary, since they swiped it from Harper's before me:

FILIBUSTERING is a term lately imported from the Spanish, yet destined, it would seem, to occupy an important place in our vocabulary. In its etymological import it is nearly synonymous with piracy. It is commonly employed, however, to denote an idea peculiar to the modern progress, and which may be defined as the right and practice of private war, or the claim of individuals to engage in foreign hostilities aside from, and even in opposition to the government with which they are in political membership. [Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1853]

Interestingly, the term "filibuster" was originally used to describe the person who was taking the action and only later became the name of the action itself. William Walker was described as a filibuster, for example. It came into the Senate that way too (1865). It was the person who was "pirating" the debate that was the filibuster, not the maneuver itself. That usage didn't come until 1893.

And of course no post on the term could be complete without posting the most famous filibuster of all, even if that filibuster never really took place.

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