“How are Harper and Ignatieff doing after a week on the hustings?” asked the Globe and Mail on April 1.
That same day, a headline in the Simcoe Reformer proclaimed, And They’re off to the Hustings.
“Layton has the hustings to himself,” declared the Hamilton Spectator on April 2.
And this appeared in the National Post on March 28: “Out on the hustings: where you’ll find the party leaders.”
Where and what are these hustings?
Originally, in England, a husting was a court held by the Lord Mayor in London’s Guildhall. Soon, it referred not to the court itself but to the upper end of the Guildhall.
The Guildhall, when first heard of in the 17th century, was the meeting place for a guild (also spelled “gild”). Guilds, as we learned in school, were associations of tradesmen. Even back then, the Guildhall was practically a synonym for “town hall.” Thus, it’s been a natural progression of meaning that the Guildhall, today, is the hall used for meetings by the Corporation of the City of London.
By 1719, a husting meant the temporary platform or stage that candidates running for parliament used while addressing voters. Almost immediately, hustings began to mean, “the proceedings during a parliamentary election” (OED).
We find a simple definition in Johnson’s Dictionary (1756). Here it’s defined as, “A council. A court held. The place of meeting to choose an MP.”
Hustings also began to mean any place where political speeches are delivered, and then, the campaign route of a candidate. This last meaning is especially true in our country.
In Britain, hustings still means a meeting where candidates field questions from voters — a “Town Hall.” But that takes us close to the original meaning — the court of a Guildhall.
Hustings appears to be strictly British and Commonwealth usage. In the U.S., the verb “to stump” is used in a more or less similar way, although “stump,” as a political term, doesn’t even rate a separate dictionary listing.
The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary (1984) defines the political stump as, “To make a tour delivering speeches, to stump the country.” This definition of stump is awarded only fourth meaning in this dictionary. The OED places it ninth.
Still, the origin of to stump (1775) is interesting. It comes from the fact that, in early rural America, a tree stump often served as a platform for delivering political speeches.
Hustings is a plural noun that can take either a plural or singular verb. The word is from Old Norse husping, meaning a council or assembly held by a king, earl, duke, etc. Such a council was seen as distinct from the volk-moot, or general assembly of the people.
Husping is from hus (house) and thing (assembly). Thing, in this sense, is still seen in the words used for political assemblies in most Scandinavian countries — Folketing (Denmark), Storting (Norway), Althing (Iceland).
Husping entered Old English as husting which was then pronounced HOO-sting. Today, that “ust” rhymes with “must.”