What are words worth?

‘Plump’ is an interesting word.

I hear you say: “Isn’t ‘plump’ just the euphemism you awkwardly use to describe that fat kid to his parents’ face?” Fairy godmothers are plump; untermenschen are clinically obese.

Well, no. It carries other meanings. If you think about it, you ‘plump’ up cushions, though I guess that may be because the neighbour’s fat kid has indented them and you are simply trying to restore their shape to their pristine Homes & Gardens youth. So it’s all about rounded and rosy in a nice way.

But then again that word is also used when you choose something.

Unlikely any contestant on The Price is Right ever uttered the homely ‘I’ll plump for door number three, Bob…’, but you get the picture (…but not the car; it’s behind door number two). Plumping is about opting.

Knowing as we do that a lot of English language is solely designed to catch out foreigners, there is a plausible justification how the same word came to mean both ‘fat’ and ‘to select’. Many of the wackier rules of grammar and spelling were crafted in the early 19th century by bored and malicious professors at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Think Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.

If you do not believe me, google the list of redundant and ridiculous collective nouns they invented for groups of animals and birds. I do not need to tell you though — you already knew that according to them it’s a ‘convocation of eagles’, a ‘shrewdness of apes’, a ‘bouquet of pheasants’ and a ‘wisdom of wombats’. You must have guessed already that it was muffin-eating aesthetes who made them up, wracked as they were with suppressed distaste for those not in academe’s leafy cottages.

It was not this particular closet from which the verb to ‘plump’, meaning ‘go for’ emerged. It was politics. In fact from dirty politics in the raw. It was used during that one time when the elective dictatorship we call democracy descends from its Olympus to soil its hands with the people — election time.

Recently I have been studying British elections before and after the two largely ineffectual electoral reform acts. British elections through the mid-19th century were, to say the least, open to abuse. No, make that as corrupt as… well, ‘a corruption of aardvarks’. (I made that one up, but to paraphrase JFK for a minute, ‘let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike’, it is henceforth to be known as a ‘corruption of aardvarks’).

Only a tiny proportion of adults in any Parliamentary constituency (men of course) were entitled to vote. Voters were numbered in hundreds, not thousands and so each vote really did count. Towns or districts often elected more than one MP so that meant voters would have more than one vote to cast. Voting could go on for a week. There was no such thing as a secret ballot. Each afternoon a running total of scores for each candidate was published so in was inevitable that bribing voters was the name of the game.

Spreading electoral largesse was done in various ways. (A candidate was usually a Londoner who had decided that he was the right man to represent a constituency often many hundreds of miles away and a place he had never been to and would only visit again come next election time). His first move was to pay handsomely to take over a local pub as campaign headquarters. Thereafter free drinks would flow for all supporters who entered. The candidate would hire agents to do the actual bribing so that if they were ever caught the MP could put on a shocked expression and keep his seat.

Next a large number of messengers would be hired. To be more precise a large number of invoices paying for non-existent messengers were written out. Then the agents would move from pub to pub in the village or town, paying off more landlords for the hire of their backroom for meetings that never happened. Committees were formed with committee members getting copious expenses too. Then it came right down to tracking down the individual voters, usually simple working men who understood their vote could be worth a month’s wage. And for ‘the ladies’ who though they could not vote could be used to swing household allegiance there was always a copious supply of silk ribbon to be handed out. It was then a matter of getting the men drunk enough to vote the right way and escorting them back to cast their vote in the town square — then back to the room at campaign headquarters with its whitewashed over windows to prevent nosey spies from the other side. There the voter would get paid off.

Back to plumping again. The word did mean to choose, but in a very precise context. In the multi-candidate seats, agents sought above all someone who promised to be a ‘plumper’. Remember that very often each voter had two or even three votes. If he voted for your man but also cast his second or third for other candidates, it cancelled out the vote you just paid for — your man could still lose. If he was a plumper and he ‘plumped’ he would vote only once, solely for your man, giving no votes to the others. Of course this boosted your man’s numbers at the expense of all the rival candidates — in effect counting as two or three votes for your candidate. In a race which was decided in fewer than a dozen votes, a plumper was worth his weight in bribes.

Tell that to the neighbour’s fat kid next time your kid invites him over to compress the soft furnishings with his butt cheeks.

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