Election Day in the United States — Tuesday, November 3, 2020 — is approaching, and that means we're seeing a lot of a certain four-letter word. You know the one I'm talking about: poll.

Like many four-letter words, poll is versatile. When it's pluralized, it's a place to cast a vote: "Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day." When it's singular, it's a method of obtaining information: a straw poll, an exit poll, an opinion poll, a flash poll, even a popcorn poll. Poll can be a noun, a verb, or a modifier; and it can be used to form new words, such as pollster, poll worker, or poll watcher.

Where did this flexible little word come from, and how did it become so closely associated with voting?

Back in Middle English, some 800 years ago, poll was often spelled polle, and it meant "the head of a person or animal" or "the hair or fur on the head." Shakespeare, for one, spelled it pole — "His beard was white as snowe / All flaxen was his pole," Ophelia sings in Hamlet — although that pole is unrelated to the modern word that's spelled that way. (Poll is also unrelated to a lot of other words it superficially resembles, including politician, polemic, and the fish called pollock, each of which has a different origin.) Poll probably came into English from Middle Dutch, where pol meant "top" or "summit."

We've retained Shakespeare's sense of poll in the worlds of livestock and horticulture. A horse's or cow's poll is the top of its head, between or just behind the ears. Polled livestock — usually sheep — have had their horns (their polls) removed. Such an animal was once called a pollard, which is still the word we use for a tree whose topmost branches — its "head" — have been cut back to the trunk to promote new growth.

It may not be obvious today, but the poll in poll tax — now defined as a financial barrier to voting — also comes from the old "head" sense. (Its alternate name, "capitation tax," comes from the Latin word for "head," capita.) When the poll tax was first levied in Great Britain, in 1275, it was a tax on every person — every head — to help fund war. More recently, the "community charge" in England, Scotland, and Wales in the 1980s — a flat-rate tax on every citizen to fund local government — was commonly called a poll tax. It was based on the rental value of property, and it was widely protested (and abandoned in 1993).

Poll taxes were also collected in the United States, all the way back to Colonial times, but it wasn't until the late 19th century that they became a precondition to voting in many former Confederate states. Alone or in conjunction with literacy tests, poll taxes effectively disenfranchised large groups of citizens — most notoriously African Africans but also poor white people and women. The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, abolished the use of poll taxes in federal elections but made no mention of state elections. As recently as 2019, Florida's Republican governor and legislature imposed "a modern-day poll tax" on ex-felons whose voting rights had been restored by the electorate the previous year. Florida, it's worth noting, was the first state, back in the 1880s, to impose a poll tax on all eligible voters.

For several hundred years, polling was a synonym for "lopping off"; it could even mean "haircutting." In the mid-18th century, though, it began to be used in connection with voting. Polling place — a building where voting takes place — dates from around 1710, and polling day first appeared around 1769. Polling booth — a private compartment in which a voter casts a ballot — is documented from 1805.

The verb to poll, "to ask the opinions of people; to conduct a survey," first acquired that meaning in Britain in the mid-19th century; its use quickly spread across the Atlantic. By the 1930s, with the advent of modern media, a prolific crop of new poll compounds had sprouted. "Straw vote" — an unofficial sampling — had been around since the 1860s. but it was replaced by straw poll around 1932. According to William Safire's Political Dictionary, originally published in 1968, "A straw is metaphorically weighty (the last straw can break a camel's back), necessary (you can't make bricks without it), empty (straw man), and not so powerful (a straw boss is a foreman who can give orders but carries no executive responsibility)."

A sub-genre of the straw poll was invented in the early 1950s. Popcorn polls, conducted in cinemas, invited moviegoers to "vote" by buying cartons of popcorn printed with pictures of their preferred candidate. The OED's earliest citation is from the Syracuse (New York) Post-Standard in August 1952, during the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign. Today, a popcorn poll can involve other commodities — such as the coffee poll conducted every election season since 2008 by Boston Stoker, a coffee chain based, confusingly, in Dayton, Ohio.

All three bags contain the same coffee blend.

Poll watcher, first seen in print in 1893 and in headlines recently, sounds innocuous enough. In fact, the term has historically referred to partisan representatives of a candidate or party — usually volunteers but sometimes paid — who monitor a polling place for evidence of fraud. That can result in friction: During the 2004 US presidential election, Republican attorneys acting as poll watchers in Philadelphia challenged almost every young person who showed up to vote.

Time magazine, known in its early years for its inventive language, is responsible for an enduring poll coinage first seen in print in 1939: pollster, a person who conducts opinion polls — another term first recorded in 1939, although the practice of opinion polling in the US goes back to 1824. The -ster suffix "s slightly jazzy (jokester, trickster, hipster)," Safire wrote in his Political Dictionary, "and not at all scientific; many people in the survey business resisted it at first but now put up with it." What Safire didn't note: many modern -ster compounds have unsavory overtones: mobster, gangster, tipster, bankster. (Not to mention the much older monster, which goes back to Chaucer's era.)

In the 70-plus years since pollster was coined, polling has become more widespread and more scientific. Exit polls (first usage: 1976) catch voters as they leave a polling place to take the pulse of an election. Flash polls, which "quickly reach a target audience with a time-sensitive goal" — often just a matter of hours — were made possible by online survey methods and statistical-inference techniques. There are polls of polls that compile the results of multiple polls from different sources; poll trackers, which obsessively analyze those results; and websites such as FiveThirtyEight devoted to poll aggregation and election forecasting.

So ingrained has polling become in our daily lives that anyone can be an instant pollster. Just use a free tool such as SurveyMonkey or PollMole to canvass your customers about pricing plans; or survey your followers on Twitter, as GrammarTable often does, about how they use punctuation.

It's good to keep in mind, though, what billionaire businessman Warren Buffett once said: "A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought." And participating in a poll — straw, popcorn, exit, or "all of the above" — is no substitute for voting in an election.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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