What is the origin of the word ‘candidate’?

(Deepa Sharma, Delhi)

The word ‘candidate’ has several different meanings — someone who contests in an election is called a candidate. It is also frequently used to refer to a person appearing for an interview, taking an exam, etc. In the past, ‘candidate’ had only one meaning — it meant someone dressed in white. The word comes from the Latin ‘candidatus’ meaning ‘white robed’. During Roman times, people who were running for public office used to walk around in white togas. They chose this colour to give the impression that they were men of integrity; that they were as spotless as the toga they were wearing. With the passage of time, the word acquired a new meaning — from a person dressed in white, it began to mean someone seeking public office. Nothing much has changed since Roman times; the crooked politician of today while canvassing for his party also wears white. We know from experience, however, that the average politician is a person without scruples. By the way, the word ‘candid’ meaning ‘straightforward, frank’ comes from the word ‘candidate’. This is definitely not something we expect from our politicians.

What is the meaning and origin of the expression ‘tip one’s hand’?

(Niraj, Mysore)

When you ‘tip your hand’, you reveal your plans or intentions; things that you had kept a secret are now shared with another person — either intentionally or unintentionally. It is also possible to say ‘show one’s hand’.

*Don’t say anything during the first meeting. You don’t want to tip your hand.

The expression comes from the world of cards. When you accidentally tip your hand, you allow the other players to see what cards you are holding — this will give them an advantage.

How is the word ‘melee’ pronounced?

(S Bhavani, Vellore)

There are two different ways of pronouncing this word. The ‘e’ in the first syllable sounds like the ‘e’ in ‘bet’, ‘get’ and ‘wet’, and the ‘lee’ in the second sounds like the word ‘lay’. The word is pronounced ‘ME-lay’ with the stress on the first syllable. Another way is to pronounce the first syllable like the word ‘may’. In this case, the word is pronounced ‘MAY-lay’ with the stress once again on the first syllable. ‘Melee’ is mostly used in rather formal contexts to refer to a relatively large and noisy crowd in which people move about in all directions. This word comes from the French ‘meslee’ meaning ‘brawl’ or ‘confused fight’.

*Three members of the teaching staff suffered injures during the melee.

What is the difference between ‘wayfarer’ and ‘traveller’?

(J Mala, Chennai)

The word ‘wayfarer’ is limited to literary contexts. It is mostly used to refer to someone who travels from one place to another on foot; he always walks. ‘Traveller’, on the other hand, is a general term; it refers to someone who gets from one place to another by any means. Like the wayfarer, he may choose to walk to his destination, or he may choose to use some mode of transportation — bus, train, plane, car, horse, etc.


“In Mexico, an air conditioner is called a politician because it makes a lot of noise and doesn’t work very well.”Len Deighton