In a word: suffrage

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


The most common current sense of suffrage (pronounced SUF-rij) is “a vote,” “voting,” or “the right to vote,” but the word grew out of an earlier sense of prayer of intercession or supplication.

The Latin root is suffragium, “vote,” “support,” “assistant.” It appears to derive from sub + fragor, “noise,” as of a vote of acclamation.

The prayer sense survives in suffrages, which are liturgical intercessory prayers. A related sense occurs in the title of a suffragan bishop, who assists a diocesan bishop or is subordinate to a metropolitan.

But we see the word mostly as a synonym of the franchise, the right to vote, from the Old French franc, “free,” with the sense of voting associated with freedom from restriction and a right or privilege granted by government.   

It is nearly a century since the 19th Amendment to the Constitution—ratified on August 18, 1920—gave women the right to vote. (And then we got Warren Gamaliel Harding. Ah, well.) Whatever you may think of the current aspirants to the Executive Mansion, you cannot overlook the historic possibility of a woman becoming the forty-fifth president of the United States tomorrow.

Example: From Richard Paul Fuke’s Imperfect Equality: African Americans and the confines of white racial attitudes in post-emancipation Maryland (1999): “Despite the failure of white Baltimoreans to respond more effectively to the challenge of black migration, the city provided the principal arena for black and radical leaders’ most ambitious reform effort: universal manhood suffrage.”   

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