An American Editor

March 11, 2010

On Words: Filibuster

I’m in frustrated-angry mode. My local power utility (read monopoly) has raised its rates twice in 12 months, and has applied for a third rate increase. My Internet/TV/telephone package rate has gone up because they added cable channels that I’m not interested in ever watching (truth be told, I don’t ever watch TV and have the cable TV only because my wife insists).

But the final blow came in the mail from my health insurance company: our rates are going up 25%. The excuses given include higher New York State taxes (mine have gone up significantly, too), increased use of health care services by others, federal expansion of COBRA, a large number of H1N1 flu cases, and federal expansion of “large group” mental health and substance abuse coverage (we are a small group).

Then I read the latest on healthcare reform in Washington, DC — the movement that appears to be going nowhere fast — and how a filibuster is threatened should a bill come to the floor of the Senate. Setting aside my frustration with politicians who think first about lining their pockets and last about their constituents, I wondered about the origins of the word filibuster. There is a certain Kafkaesqueness, a certain Alice-in-Wonderland-ness about the word that intrigues me.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines filibuster as “1a. The use of obstructionist tactics…for the purpose of delaying legislation.…2. An adventurer who engages in a private military action in a foreign country” The first definition is what we commonly understand, but the second is closer to the word’s roots.

In early American English, the spellings were fillibustier and flibustier. Sometime in the 1850s the spelling changed to the current filibuster. An early English spelling (16th century and earlier) was flibutor, which was borrowed from the Dutch word for freebooter (vrijbuiter); an earlier version of flibutor was fribustier, confusing its origins.

Filibuster is French in origin, coming from flibustier, referring to pirates who pillaged the Spanish West Indies during the 1700s. In the 1800s, the word’s origins shifted from French to the Spanish usage and meaning. Filibustero, the Spanish version, which also meant freebooter or common rover (as opposed to a buccaneer; buccaneers were French settlers who were hired as hunters by the Spanish. When they were later driven out, the buccaneers turned to plundering, thus morphing buccaneer‘s meaning from hunter to pirate), was used to describe Americans, primarily Texans, who incited insurrection against Spain in Latin America.

Probably the best-known filibusteros were those who joined Narcisso Lopez’s Cuban insurrection in 1850-1851, and those who followed William Walker’s insurrection against Sonora, Mexico (1853-54) and against Nicaragua (1855-58). As reported by the Lawrence (KS) Republican, June 2, 1857, “Walker, the filibuster, has been forced to capitulate.”

This sense of filibuster (freebooter, revolutionist, insurrectionist) remained in use for decades and was used to describe other persons whose tactics were similar to those of the American filibusters. For example, an article in Knowledge (1887) said: “What were the Normans…but filibusters? What were the Pilgrim Fathers but filibusters?” Columbus and William the Conqueror also were called filibusters. But this sense has, for the most part, faded away as the political sense has gained use, although it isn’t clear to me that this original sense isn’t an apt description of today’s filibusters.

One of the earliest uses of filibuster in the sense we think of it today, that is, as a tactic by a member of the legislative minority to impede action by the majority, was by the Portland Oregonian (February 5, 1853): “Filibustero principles do not appear to meet with much consideration from the southern members of congress.” In 1889, the Boston Journal (January 14) noted that “The surrender of legislative functions by the majority of the House and the carrying on of business…only by a humiliating ‘trreaty’ with a single determined filibuster is something entirely anomalous in a country…governed by majority action.”

Of course, in the early days of legislative filibustering, filibusters were required to speak — Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in real life — and garnered little sympathy when they could no longer command the floor. As the New York Times (January 31, 1915) wrote: “The Senate sits…and the overwhelmed filibusters simply cannot talk.” Two weeks later, the New York Times (February 16) reported: “The Republicans will filibuster…against the cloture rule.” How little has changed in 95 years!

This action, speaking for the sole purpose of consuming time, was the required method prior to the Senate becoming a gentlemen’s club at taxpayer and citizen expense. Now the excuse is that Senators have other important business to attend (e.g., fundraising, violating ethics, lobbying against the interests of their constituents); so why waste time listening to endless speech making? The Congressional Record of February 11, 1890, noted that “A filibuster was indulged in which lasted…for nine continuous calendar days.” Just think — 9 days of legislative peace!

But there was a spark of humor in the annals of senatorial filibustering. Consider this Chicago Times (July 22, 1947) report of a filibuster: “You’re filibustering against the wrong bill, Senator–the resolution before the Senate is for adjournment.” Now if only the American voter could filibuster, perhaps we could put an end to Washington gridlock.

One final note: I am intrigued that both the act and the actor are called filibuster. Why is the actor not called filibusterer?

3 Comments »

  1. The person doing the filibustering should be called a filiblusterer.

    The health-care mess leaves me frustrated beyond words, and that’s a rare condition for me.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 11, 2010 @ 9:31 am | Reply

    • I agree that the person filibustering should be called a filibusterer, but that is incorrect usage currently. The lexicon recognizes the dual use of filibuster to signify both the act and the actor. I’m curious as to why filibuster hasn’t followed the path of other words, i.e., adding -er to signify the actor rather than the act.

      Like

      Comment by americaneditor — March 11, 2010 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for this post. I know that researching posts like this takes more time, patience, and care, but this is the stuff I really love to see written about. Keep it up!

    Like

    Comment by 4ndyman — March 12, 2010 @ 11:16 am | Reply


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