The Houses of Parliament

Ayes to the right – unravelling parliamentary idioms

posted in: English language | 0

As the EU referendum falls this week I thought that I’d lighten the mood and research some idioms related to parliament, elections and government. I was surprised that many common idioms that I had always been led to believe had a parliamentary meaning or origin were in fact completely unrelated. So, phrases like toe the line, hit the sack and brass monkey, all have their origins elsewhere. Similarly, the term ‘ayes to the right’ has nothing to do with eyesight!

Political idioms

Here are a few phrases or idioms with some political connection:

Silly Season – the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Idioms tells us that the ‘silly season’ refers to the period of time when Parliament is in summer recess. Deprived of government gossip, the newspapers are forced to invent silly stories to fill their pages.

Spill the beans – this phrase means to divulge a secret. It has been suggested that it originates from a voting system used in Ancient Greece, when votes were cast by putting beans into a jar. If the jar was toppled before the close of voting the votes were lost.

On the nod – a decision made by general agreement; this term is still in use in Parliament today when non-contentious issues are agreed without debate.

On your soapbox – to express strong opinions about something (often a boring subject). Originates from wooden boxes used to pack soap which were often used at political rallies or canvassing meetings to raise the speaker above the level of the crowd.

First past the post – the electoral system used in the UK where the single winner is the person with the most votes. The term originates from horse-racing where the race winner is the horse that passes the winning post first.

Straw poll – an unofficial vote. The term is derived from holding a stalk of straw in the air to determine which direction the wind is blowing; in the idiom it is the wind of public opinion.

The ayes have it – means that the ‘yes’ vote is in the majority. In the UK Parliament when MPs vote on an issue they leave the House of Commons chamber and divide into separate division lobbies for ‘ayes’ (yes votes) and ‘noes’ (no votes). So, the term ‘ayes to the right’ I used in the title means that those in favour go through the right-hand lobby.

Finally, a quick look at the origin of the word ‘referendum’ as that’s what will be on people’s lips in the next few days. The word comes from the Latin verb refero which means bringing back, i.e. bringing back the issue or question to the public.

These few idioms are mostly related to the British political scene. With the US elections coming up in November you can check out the meaning of all those American terms you may be hearing like stumping, GOP, and superPACS in this fascinating blog post. I should have read this before watching House of Cards recently!

Ayes to the right
 Parliamentary idioms