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Psephism and Psephologists

The British general election campaign threw up a word which provoked much head-scratching and dictionary-hunting in this little corner of South Africa.

It appeared in the Guardian Weekly in a front- page assessment of the state of the parties.

The sentence read: "When John Major called the election, against such a psephologically discouraging background, the world assumed he must have had shots in his locker".

Psephologically? Knowing the Guardian's well-earned reputation for misprints and typographical errors - that's why the Private Eye calls it the Grauniad – the first reaction was to dismiss it as another printer's solecism.

Surely the writer meant psychologically, especially as neither Chambers nor the Shorter Oxford dictionary could shed any light on the newspaper's rendering of the word.

And with Wordsworth away from the office on non-linguistic matters, there was no immediate recourse to higher authority or even second opinion.

Thus the offending article lay on my desk awaiting comment, criticism, or preferably both. In such circumstances it was a pleasure to be able to declare loftily and much to the scepticism of colleagues: “It's to do with pebbles, surely everyone knows that".

As some of Wordsworth's more arcane derivations often create a similar reaction, the OED was hauled out as the final arbiter. Sure enough, there it was: "Psephism - to vote, prop. with pebbles. A decree enacted by a vote of public assembly esp. of the Athenians".

By extension, psephology is the study of voting trends and patterns; analysis of opinion polls and early election results to predict the ultimate state of the parties.

At the general election time, Britain teems with psephologists – all giving their views on what the outcome of the polls will be.

The word came into currency in the late 1960s when televised election results temporarily ousted Coronation Street from the popularity ratings. By the time the first few constituencies had reported, psephologists had calculated percentage swings, projected probable gains and losses, and come up with a forecast of the eventual result so accurate that it made the whole nationwide voting process seem unnecessary.

Our own referendum a few weeks ago produced a similar crop of predictions from political analysts around the country, notably from Potchefstroom.

As yet, they have not taken to calling themselves psephologists. Perhaps the pebble derivation is too close to rocks.

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