Words from Roman Electoral Vocabulary

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A candidate is a person who is standing for election to a position of authority in public life, or being interviewed for a post or promotion within an institution, or taking an examination or test. The word candidate is also used, in an extended sense, of someone who, or something which, is regarded as suitable for a particular position, function, or form of treatment, as in ‘This department’s poor research record makes it a (strong) candidate for closure.’

The English noun candidate comes from the Latin candidātus, which is used both as an adjective and as a noun. As an adjective, candidātus, formed from candidus (‘white’), means ‘dressed in white’. The word came to be used as a noun meaning ‘candidate for office’ because in the period of the Roman Republic those standing for election to political office wore a white toga on the day of the election when they appeared in the forum to greet voters and gather support.

At least two other English words have their origins in the Latin vocabulary of Roman elections.

During the Roman Republic the official word for a candidate for office was petītor, a noun formed from the verb petere (‘to seek’, ‘to look for’, ‘to stand for (office)’) and meaning ‘a person seeking (office)’. (The word petītor was also used of a plaintiff in a law suit, i.e., a person seeking justice in the courts.) A candidate’s rivals were referred to as competītores, i.e., fellow-seekers, those seeking (office) along with him – the origin of the English words competitor, competition, and competitive.

On the day of an election candidates would go around in the forum approaching voters to ask for their support. The Latin for ‘to go around’ is ambīre, a verb with the related noun ambitio, (i.e., literally ‘a going around’), which has amongst its meanings both ‘canvassing for votes’ and what motivates this activity, namely, ‘ambition’ – hence the English words ambition and ambitious.