Cabinet is the peculiar name given a specific group of elected officials.
Few of those officials are good-looking enough to rate a place beside your china cabinet. Many would also suggest that none are as useful as a kitchen cabinet.
So how did this designation originate?
In politics, cabinet originally referred not to people, but to the private room where government officials met — the council chamber.
Cabinet is from the Middle English cabane, from the Late Latin capanna. Both words meant, ‘booth; hut; soldier’s tent.” The original English word was cabin, not cabinet.
By 1598, cabin meant any poor dwelling or hovel. By 1616, it also meant, “a cell.”
Cabinet, the diminutive of cabin, was soon employed to further indicate lack of space.
As early as 1605, the verb, “to cabinet,” had come to mean, “to shut up” or “enclose in a small space.” Two years later (1607), to cabinet also implied secrecy and privacy.
By that time, just such a small private room had already been set aside for political consultation, and by 1620, this room became known as Cabinet Council.
It took another 20 years for those who met in such a council to themselves become known as the cabinet (1641).
Dictionaries and political texts define a cabinet as that group of ministers responsible for implementing government policy. Oxford notes a difference between parliamentary cabinets and presidential ones: “The cabinet may take collective decisions as it does in the U.K. or it may have only an advisory status, as in the case of the President’s Cabinet in the U.S.A.”
It’s interesting to note that the British North America Act of 1867 also mentions cabinet’s advisory role: “There shall be a Council to aid and advise in the Government of Canada. This Council, known as the Cabinet, is composed of Ministers of the Crown who serve as confidential advisers” (Canadian Law Dictionary). As such, cabinet clearly is supposed to be the very centre of a government executive.
Canadian Law continues: (Cabinet’s) functions are not ... confined to executive acts. As a body that leads the majority in the House of Commons, it is able to act as a ruling committee controlling the business of the House.”
Right now, there are 37 full cabinet ministers in Canada’s government. All are members of the Privy Council. This status is noted as “PC” following the minister’s name, e.g., Hon. Jennifer Jenkins, PC, MP. Even after leaving the House and becoming private citizens, privy councillors retain that title — even after death, in fact. So, Joe Clark, John Crosby, Reg Alcott and Pierre Trudeau, for example, should all still have the initials PC following mention of their names.
It’s also important to understand that it’s membership in the Privy Council and not in the cabinet that warrants the title, “The Honourable.”
The Privy Council is officially the advisory council to a prime minister and includes present, as well as former, members of cabinet. The official name of this body is The Queen’s Privy Council of Canada.