By Judy Woodward
Every week, the reference librarians at the Roseville Library answer hundreds of questions from the public. Here is one of the interesting queries they have received lately:
Q. On the news, it said that the word “filibuster” comes from the Dutch word for “pirate.” Can you tell me more about that? What’s the Dutch word, and how did filibuster get its present meaning?
A. The Dutch word is “vrijbuiter,” it rhymes with, “Why doubt her.’’But how did it go from describing a Dutch pirate to an American political block?
The term first appeared in 1678 in a Dutch book called “De Americaensche Zee-Roover,” or can be found as an English translation “The Buccaneers of America,” available now. The book, which described buccaneers spreading their special brand of seagoing mayhem in the West Indies, was naturally of much interest to the Spanish and French speakers who were the targets of the pirates. It was quickly translated into those languages, which brought their own linguistic flavor to the unfamiliar word “vrijbuiter.”
The Spanish inserted an extra syllable at the beginning and the French began to write it with a silent, unpronounced s. And that’s where things stood until the mid-19th century when certain American citizens began conducting freelance raids, leading private armies in attempts to conquer Caribbean and Central American targets like Cuba and Nicaragua.
English speakers used the word “filibuster” to describe these latter-day marauders, but—not knowing French spelling rules or Spanish pronouncing conventions—they gave the word its modern sound.
It acquired its modern political meaning a few years later during the Civil War era, when it was applied as a description of obstructive or unruly legislators. By 1893, filibuster came to stand for the specific political act of delaying passage of legislation in the United States Senate.
The filibuster was rarely used and was little known until actor Jimmy Stewart made it famous in the 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
In more recent times, it has become a much less dramatic (but more frequent) political maneuver. (Source: the Online Etymological Dictionary.)
Judy Woodward, who lives in St. Anthony Park, is a reference librarian at the Roseville Library, 2180 N. Hamline Ave.