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Mind your language

Is Boris Johnson standing for Parliament — or running for it?

Yes, this is an Americanism – but it hardly blew in yesterday

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

‘Boris Johnson broke cover yesterday to declare that he will run for parliament,’ the Times reported last week. The Mirror had him running too. The Independent and the Guardian had him standing for Parliament. The Express said rather oddly that he would ‘stand as an MP’, as did the Evening Standard, though the latter made amends by speculating that Zac Goldsmith was being urged ‘to stand as the Tory candidate for Mayor of London’.

There is no doubt that running for election was originally an American phrase, though it hardly blew in yesterday. Andrew Hamilton, a founding father of the United States, wrote in a letter that ‘either Governor Clinton, or Mr Burr… is to be run in this quarter as Vice President in opposition to Mr Adams’. That usage of someone being run, like a horse in a race, is recorded in the late 18th century, just a few years before someone running for Congress or for President. But both had been preceded centuries earlier by the British English stand for. Shakespeare in Coriolanus has people standing either for abstract consulships or for the concrete consul. One could stand for a post (such as burgess), a constituency (such as the county) or for an institution (such as parliament).

With a different kind of stand, it is the other way round: the American usage is witness stand, and the British English is witness box. That does not stop British media reporting that witnesses take the stand. An even more curious report arose from a case in Durham Crown Court last month when a judge and a barrister had a bit of a barney. ‘The judge barked at him to sit down six times, banging his gavel on the bench as he did so,’ said one report. Surely some mistake, for English judges do not have gavels, even though television comedy has them hammering away for all they’re worth. Last week it was reported that ‘the judge in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial gavelled arguments to a close’. I haven’t watched the trial, although it has been impossible to avoid extracts on the news. I can’t for the life of me remember whether the South African judge has a gavel or not.


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