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Candidate and Senate

By November 16, 2004 No Comments

As I look out of my office window, I see sky and the tops of trees. That’s because a foot of snow sits on the outside sill of my window, blocking most of my view. The world is blanketed in snow, giving off an incandescent glow; in other words, the world is white-robed. In Latin that would be candidatus, white-robed.

Roman men who were seeking office had to wear white robes, candidates, to indicate to the people who saw them in the street that they were running for office. This was before newspapers and TV, after all, and the people needed some way to identify them. Of course, the symbolism of the white robe might be considered a bit ironic–at least if Roman politicians, like some of ours, were not exactly snow-white in character or behavior.

A related word, candid, has an equally ironic connotation when applied to certain political candidates. Candid means “white,” but also “open and frank.” Yet one thing almost all candidates excel at is the art of obfuscation, of muddying an issue, so that their answers are not open and frank, but guarded and ambiguous. How strange that those people we call candidates are often the very least candid of people.

A third word from this same root is one I used a moment ago to describe the glowing snow–incandescent, meaning “white and shining”–the word Thomas Edison used to describe the first electric light bulbs he developed. Most of us know that the prefix in can mean “not” (as in insensitive), but often it is an intensifier, and it means something like “very,” which is the case with the “in” of incandescent. It suggests a very white and shining light.

While we’re on the subject of candidates, we might as well take a look at the word senate. Senate and senator come from the Latin word senex, meaning old. The Roman senate was the council of elders. I suppose that the average age of the senators in the United States senate is significantly higher than the average age of the members of the House of Representatives, so perhaps it is, to some degree, at least, true to the original meaning of the word.

I’m not sure we can say that about the word congress, however. Congress comes from the Latin congressus, meaning a walking or coming together. As I have observed the congress recently, I have observed much more division and partisanship than I have a walking and coming together.

Candidates, senators, congress people– all are frail human beings prone to sin. None can dress in white-robed splendor. For that we will have to wait for the New Heaven and New Earth. In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John gives us a vision of the angels and the elders and the throngs of the redeemed all robed in white. What an incandescent sight that will be: “The city will not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

David Schelhaas teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. He is a member of the editoral board of Perspectives.
Dave Schelhaas

Dave Schelhaas

Dave Schelhaas is the author of a book on word histories called Angling in the English Stream, a memoir called The Tuning of the Heart and three collections of poetry including his most recent collection Tounges that Dance.