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Oft-repeated word-origin error
Nov 15, 2012

 

At a garage sale, I picked up a copy of the 1944 historical novel, Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor. It’s in dreadful condition, its cover no longer attached to the rest of the book and many pages loose — some almost ripped in half. But this 726-page book cost only a nickel so I really can’t complain. Besides, not one page is missing.
I read a smuggled copy of Forever Amber when I was in high school. It was banned in Boston and, while not formally banned here, it wasn’t available in Winnipeg’s book stores.
It’s a very good read. It takes place in Restoration England and Amber, the heroine, lives through the Great Plague (1665-66) as well as the Fire of London (1666). The Restoration, which saw Oliver Cromwell ousted and the monarchy restored, occurred in 1660.
Amber, the illegitimate daughter of nobility, has been raised by farmers and has no knowledge of her true heritage. She goes to London where she becomes one of the mistresses of Charles II. Readers get a graphic look at the corruption and intrigue surrounding royalty in the mid-17th century.
Although most of this fictional work is historically accurate, I was bothered by a seeming word-origin error — an error perpetuated not only by Winsor but by scores of others.
Winsor writes: “When Clarendon had gone his government was replaced by the Cabal, so called because the first letters of the five names spelled the word. It was made up of Sir Thomas Clifford ...; Arlington ...; Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale.”
While it’s true this covey of connivers in Charles’s court were indeed called the cabal because of their initials, the word cabal didn’t originate as an acronym of Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale as Winsor seemingly suggests. Cabal has a more ancient history.
Cabal, meaning a group of plotters or conspirators, comes from the Hebrew quabbalah (cabbala; cabala).
Cabbala has long been seen as the traditional interpretation of those occult or hidden ideas found in Hebrew scripture — in what Christians call the Old Testament.
Eventually, cabbala came to mean, “anything secret or undisclosed.” When it entered English in 1646, it was spelled cabal and, in English, has always been connected to intrigue.
Oxford notes that in today’s usage, “Cabal is applied to any political group which pursues its aims by underhand methods.”
And so it did in the 1600s.
Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, was Chancellor of England at that time. Today, we’d call him prime minister. Charles dismissed him in 1667, and it was then that the cabal arose. 
Oxford tells us that those behind-the-scenes plotters of Charles II’s reign were, “the precursors of the English cabinet.” By extension, that would mean any cabinet in the parliamentary system of government.
Most of us have no first-hand experience with political cabinets, so we cannot even suggest they consist of plotters and intriguers today. But it’s an interesting thought.
And it’s easy to see how the false notion of cabal’s origin began.
Cabinet is not from cabal. It originates in the French cabane (booth; hut).