Dear Word Detective: I am curious to know the meaning of the word “filibuster.”  It’s a word that has been used by a friend a few times this past week. — Elizabeth.

That’s a good and timely question, although I must caution you about listening too closely to your friend.  He or she is obviously trying to lure you into paying attention to the US Congress, the members of which have been muttering even more than usual about “filibusters” the past few months.  Don’t fall for it.  That way lies madness. I would suggest, instead, that you develop an obsessive interest in a hobby or two far from the realm of politics, such as raising alpacas and collecting beer cans.  Trust me, you’ll thank me in a year or two.  And think of all the fun you’ll have watching the alpacas drink the beer!

I’ve actually answered questions about “filibuster” in the past, but since that was years ago and the word has been used in nearly every news report about Congress in the past year, it’s clearly time for a flashback.

Today we use “filibuster” to mean a tactic used in a legislature to block action by the opposition, most often by taking advantage of rules allowing unlimited debate to speak for hours, thereby stalling votes for as long as possible and sometimes completely preventing action on the bill.  This “talk ’til they drop” tactic actually dates back to the Roman Senate, but use of  the term “filibuster” for the practice, and its evolution into an art form in the US Senate, dates only to the mid-19th century.  (The US House of Representatives wisely abolished the filibuster in 1842.)

One might imagine that the term “filibuster” was coined in tribute to a particularly obstinate and long-winded Senator Filibuster of the past, but the truth is much stranger.  The root of “filibuster” is actually the Dutch term “vrijbuiter,” a combination of “vrij” (free) and “buiter” (plunder), which was first borrowed into English in the 16th century as “freebooter,” meaning a pirate.  (“Buiter” is also the source of “booty,” meaning “treasure.”)  In the 19th century, we borrowed the word again, this time from its Spanish form, “filibustero,” as “filibuster.”

The “filibusters” of the early 19th century were more than simple pirates.  They were North American adventurers and mercenaries who sowed political disruption and fomented revolutions in the European colonies of Central and South America, hoping to seize political power and the wealth that came with it.  Tennessee native William Walker, who first tried to seize part of Mexico and then twice attempted to invade Nicaragua, was the classic example of the “filibuster.”

This sort of behavior was extremely controversial within the US in the 1850s, many people considering “filibusters” in the same light as terrorists are today.  So it was probably only a matter of time until some overheated denizen of the US Congress accused his opponents of “filibustering,” attempting to seize Congress and usurp its procedures, by using delaying tactics.  The term proved popular, and by 1853 “filibuster” had entered the public lexicon with this new meaning.

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