It’s impossible these days to read a newspaper without encountering the word “poll.”
On September 9, the Sun’s token Liberal, Warren Kinsella, demonstrated two different meanings of poll in a single paragraph. Kinsella wrote: “A National Post story headlined, ‘PQ headed to comfortable majority: Final poll before Quebec election’ was published one day before Quebec trooped to the polls.”
The Post refers to a public opinion poll which is defined as, “A technique for measuring the range of opinions of the general public.” This usage is fairly recent in our language, such polling having emerged only in the 1920s.
Meanwhile, those Quebecers who “trooped to the polls” were taking part in an election. They were voting. The idea of voting at a poll goes back to the 17th century, to 1678.
Earlier (1625), to poll meant, “to record a vote; to have one’s vote taken.” At that time, there was no suggestion that the voting place was a poll.
Neither meaning receives first definition status in the OED which offers “human head” as the primary meaning of poll. Oxford does concede that poll meaning “head” is seldom used today. Even so, Oxford reminds us poll (head) still exists in legal terminology, offering poll tax as an example.
Head and poll have further links. By 1697, a census (the counting of heads) was known as a poll. We’ve already seen that both counting voters and recording votes were called polling and, by 1832, voting in an election was polling.
The connection to head occurs in several related terms. In 1688, a poller was a barber. Almost 100 years later (1776), voters became known as pollers.
Polling also assumed a destructive meaning. In 1674, the word was used for plundering and extortion.
From barbering, to animal husbandry, to horticulture, the idea of “beheading”was associated with this word. To lop off branches or their tops was to pollard (1577). The same verb referred to removing animal horns. By the mid-1600s, to pollard meant, “to behead.”
Almost from the beginning, the blunt ends of a hammer or miner’s pick was a poll.
Poll was even incorporated into some agricultural names. A poll-beast was a hornless ox; a poll sheep was also hornless. Such beardless cereals as polbarley and polwheat also illustrated headlessness or lack of hair.
Poll taxes, sometimes called “head taxes,” “soul taxes” or “capitation taxes,” are levies on individuals rather than on income or property. Jewish law imposed a head tax of one half-shekel on every male older than 20 (Exodus 30:11-16). The first record of such a tax involves Egypt’s King Ptolemy I (c. 323 BC).
In England, in 1990, then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, imposed a poll tax. This legislation was instrumental in her eventual downfall, although the tax survived. Today, it’s known as a “council tax” or “community charge.”
A pollster is one who takes public opinion polls.
The word poll is from the Dutch polle (the top of the head). It entered Middle English as polle and carried the same meaning.