Referendums, referenda

During debates on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, one or two peers insisted on saying referenda rather than referendums.  I suspect the same will happen when we debate the European Union Bill.  However, referendum is one of those rare gerunds for which there is no plural in Latin.   I quote from footnote 1 in David Butler and Austin Ranney’s, Referendums Around the World:

‘We speak of referendums, not referenda, on the advice of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Referendum is logically preferable as a plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund referendum has no plural).  The Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning ‘things to be referred’, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues.’

I once pointed out that it should be referendums to the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, when, in giving evidence to the Constitution Committee, he referred to referenda.  The diary column  of the Evening Standard reported me as correcting himUnfortunately, they managed to get it the wrong way round!

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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14 Responses to Referendums, referenda

  1. Dean B says:

    I do find it humourous when, as in the Evening Standard’s case, people repeat a quote but get the most important detail entirely the wrong way round. At college a fellow ‘A’ Level politics student (now a very well known BBC presenter) once wrote an essay arguing against a Bill of Rights, calling in aid Lord Scarman’s famous words: “Don’t trust the judges.”

    But of course my favourite has to be the story about Lord Longford:

    “One of the most important lessons that Longford learnt from the Tories was that intellectual distinction is not a precondition of political success. He was fond of repeating a jolly little tale about Stanley Baldwin, which he also included in his book Eleven at Number 10 (1984).

    Desperate to provoke a comment from a taciturn Baldwin during a country walk, Longford asked him which political thinker had influenced him the most. Baldwin replied: “There is one political thinker who has had more influence upon me than all others – Sir Henry Maine. Rousseau argued that all human progress was from contract to status, but Maine made it clear once and for all that the real movement was from status to contract.”

    Then, in Longford’s words, “he paused, and suddenly a look of dawning horror stole across his face. ‘Or was it,’ he said, leaning just a little towards me, ‘or was it the other way round?’ “

  2. Carl.H says:

    From 1998 and Betty Boothroyd:

    “I do notice on the Public Bill List that the word referendums for Scotland and Wales is used there. The word referendum was first used in English 150 years ago, according to the Oxford English dictionary which I’ve just been able to refer to.

    “So I imagine after 150 years the House will be quite used to it now. I think the plural is a matter of taste but I’ve always preferred the use of the English language to any Latin form if that is of some guidance.”

    And there – for the time being – the House let the matter rest.

  3. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Perhaps the issue should be put to a referenrdum:

    ” Iunctus Regnum mos persevero ut mutare novus Latin verbi pluribi vultus ex Latin verbi radix”? could be the basic question put to the electorate, after correcting my faults in grammar. They could simply vote “yes” or “no”.

  4. michael says:

    may I add to the point of language in supporting Lord Norton:
    referendum is a substantivated participle and, therefore, there is no Latin plural;
    it is composed of ‘re’ (not: ‘res’ – ‘case’ even if this correlates somewhat I think) – ‘back’ and ‘ferre’ – ‘carry’ – meaning to give back an issue to the people to decide;

    The political meaning of ‘referendum’ seems to be a very interesting subject, especially in comparative perspective.
    For example, the differences between German speaking states (e.g. Austria, Switzerland, Germany) are not only wide but also deep regarding to the differences in political culture based on history and experiences.
    The Constitution of Thuringia, to put another example, knows differend words and different meanings of referendums, e.g. ‘Volksbegehren’ [request made by the people], ‘Volksentscheid’ [decision made by the people], ‘ Buergerantrag’ [motion by the citizens], and the ‘referendum’ is used for constitutional issues in a sense of plebiscite. However, the supremacy of the parliament remains in any case.

    Another point of view could be the use of ‘referendums’ as means of political debate and action including the misuse by dictatorships like the former Communist governments in East Europe.

    Therefore, I would like to thank very much Lord Norton for activating my mind by a – only at the first view – sophisticated and linguistic issue.

  5. Secret Simon says:

    Is the same logic applicable to forums and fora? Also, to viruses and virii?

  6. David Gray says:

    ‘Referenda’ sounds much nicer. ‘Referendums’ sounds clumsy. We all seem happy to use ‘media’ instead of ‘mediums’ when referring collectively to newspapers, TV and radio.

    • Lord Norton says:

      David Gray: I rather take the opposite view!

      The point that applies to referendum as gerund does not, as far as I am aware, apply to medium. Mind you, in the case of medium, in may depend on whether you are referring to a mode of mass communication or someone who can communicate with the dead.

  7. Pingback: Dispelling myths…. | The Norton View

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